BATON ROUGE -- Louisiana pharmacies could begin filling their first medical marijuana prescriptions early next year.
"We expect it to be fast-tracked now that LSU has chosen a vendor," said Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, who will regulate production of the crop. "LSU told us it will ready during the first quarter of 2018."
The Louisiana Legislature first passed Acadiana Sen. Fred Mills' bill to legalize medicinal pot in 2015, but the process has dragged as amendments and concerns were addressed in follow-up legislation.
"I'm really pleased that families who have loved ones with debilitating diseases are finally going to have the option," said Mills, R-Parks. "I have people calling me every week asking when they can access this medicine, which is often a last resort.
"Some of their stories and testimony have been heart-breaking."
Only the LSU and Southern University agriculture centers are permitted to grow the plant under the law.
LSU has selected its vendor, GB Sciences, and is negotiating contract terms.
Southern University is reviewing applications from seven companies seeking to be its vendor.
Hampton Grunewald with the LSU AgCenter said LSU and Southern will be the first public universities to grow marijuana.
"We're really excited about the research and intellectual property opportunities in the future," Grunewald said. "There's been very limited research done across the country."
Both LSU and Southern have said the crops will be grown in an enclosed building.
"Lighting, humidity, nutrition and temperature can be controlled in each zone," Grunewald said.
Both facilities will also be located in East Baton Rouge Parish, although specific sites haven't been chosen.
The ultimate pharmaceutical can't be raw. It must be delivered in pill, capsule, oil or ointment form, among others.
"The ultimate timetable will depend on the on how soon the contract can be finalized and how soon a facility can be identified and readied," Grunewald said.
Strain said the only hitch could be U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"I don't think it's probable, but it's possible if he decides to enforce federal law," said Strain, who noted marijuana remains illegal in federal law. "He has said he was going to crack down on recreational marijuana, but not medicinal."
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1