NEW ORLEANS — Louisiana's Board of Medical Examiners voted to lift the cap on the number of patients a doctor can treat with medical marijuana at its meeting here Monday.
"If we're going to treat this as a medicine then the physician should be responsible to treat his or her patients appropriately," said board member Dr. Roderick Clark. "Let the physician determine what is best for his or her patients. Leave it in the physician's hands."
The board voted 8-1 in favor of eliminating the cap with Dr. Les Johnson calling it "an historic moment for our state."
Board members also eliminated a requirement that patients see their doctors again after 90 days of treatment before they can get a renewal, although that passed by a narrow 5-4 margin.
Technically, doctors won't issue a prescription but a "physician recommendation form" because federal law still prohibits prescribing.
As Louisiana's first crop of legal medical cannabis nears harvest sometime this fall, there is growing concern from therapeutic marijuana advocates that many patients won't have access to the medicine.
Fewer than 50 doctors have either been approved or applied to issue "prescriptions" as of Monday morning. Thirty-one doctors have been approved and another 17 have applied.
In many rural areas and one city — Monroe — no doctors are on the list.
"That's just not going to cut it," said David Brown, who leads a medical marijuana advocacy group. "We're asking you to remove barriers and step back from the doctor-patient relationship."
That's the sentiment of Jacob Irving, a Baton Rouge attorney who said medical cannabis is an important tool in treating his cerebral palsy.
"We all want a program that is reputable and meets the true medical needs of patients," Irving said. "I want to be free to make that decision with my physician."
But board members did express concerns, including Dr. James Taylor, who cast the lone vote against removing the patient cap.
"We should probably go slower in the first place," Taylor said. "We can't go backward. The number is only going to get larger.
"One of my concerns it is become de facto open use."
Another board member questioned whether or not the Legislature, which this year expanded the diseases that can be treated, should be dictating medical decisions.
"Do we leave it to the Legislature to tell medical professionals which diseases can be improved?" said Kim Sport.
GB Sciences is partnering with the LSU AgCenter in growing the cannabis and transforming it into a legal form. Louisiana law prevent medical cannabis from being smoked.
John Davis, president of GB Sciences, said his company is working to increase the number of prescribing physicians.
Davis said his company and the LSU AgCenter are partnering with the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners to provide online education and outreach to all Louisiana doctors.
He also said officials with GB Sciences and the LSU AgCenter plan to schedule informational meetings with doctors in each region of the state to boost participation.
"We believe that will help," Davis said.
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1