Louisiana lawmakers passed legislation June 5 that paves way to more than triple the number of medical cannabis dispensaries in the state, giving preference to existing license holders to open additional retail facilities.

The Senate passed an amended version of the legislation, House Bill 697, by a 22-12 vote on June 2, before House lawmakers concurred, 83-17, without debate on Sunday.

Currently, there are nine medical cannabis retail operators in Louisiana. Under the proposed law, nine regions would be established for each of those license holders, and the Louisiana Board of Pharmacy would be required to issue a 10th license to the region with the highest population density as of Aug. 1, 2022—likely in the New Orleans region.

In addition, H.B. 697 would allow existing retailers in each region to open up to two additional dispensaries in their respective regions upon meeting defined patient counts:

After 3,500 active, qualified patients are identified in the state’s prescription monitoring program in a region, then the license holder in that region can open a second dispensary. Once both dispensaries in a region are each serving 3,500 active patients, then the licensee in that region can open a third retail facility. 

If a license holder declines to open a third retail facility in its region, then the Board of Pharmacy may issue an additional cannabis license in that region to a new licensee in lieu of the original licensee opting out.

The proposed law stipulates that, in total, no more than 30 medical cannabis dispensaries may be approved by the board.

The retail expansion proposal under H.B. 697 comes nearly a year after Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards signed Senate Bill 391 into law last June, allowing flower and smoking in the state’s medical cannabis program. The new law took effect Jan. 1, 2022.

RELATED: Louisiana Governor Signs Smokable Medical Cannabis Bill

When Louisiana launched commercial medical cannabis sales in August 2019, patient costs were higher without whole flower, limiting patient access in the state, The Daily Advertiser reported that year.

But with licensed dispensaries in the state offering flower this year, more than 43,000 patients now participate Louisiana’s program, a number that has expanded dramatically since S.B. 391 took effect, CBS-affiliate WWL reported.

With that many active patients in the state, current license holders would qualify to add additional dispensaries in their regions immediately following the effective date of the proposed legislation now on Edwards’ desk.

While proponents of H.B. 697 say the retail expansion parameters in the proposed legislation would uphold promises made to current operators that they’d be given time to recoup their investments before such an expansion, opponents questioned why they should support a bill that would essentially create a regional monopoly for current license holders, The Advocate reported.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, who sponsors the legislation, told the news outlet his bill aims to address problems associated with the state’s fast-growing patient base and that the current version of the bill represents “what’s politically possible right now.”

He added, “But public opinion is quickly changing, and I won’t be surprised to see greater expansion in the future.”

In addition to expanding the state’s medical cannabis retail footprint, H.B. 697 also intends to transfer the duties for licensure and regulation of medical cannabis production facilities from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry to the state Department of Health (LDH). The LDH would also take over duties with respect to testing regulations.

Edwards, who has held the governor’s office since 2016, has been supportive of adapting the state’s medical cannabis program. In 2020, he signed H.B. 819, which allows doctors to recommend medical cannabis for any medical condition the physician “considers debilitating” to a patient whom he or she is qualified to treat.

That legislation also added several qualifying conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, traumatic brain injury, and chronic pain associated with sickle cell anemia or fibromyalgia.