Episode 12: The Medical Marijuana O.G.

Original Medical Marijuana O.G. Louisiana

Illustration by Iris Gottlieb


Once upon a time on this very podcast, we told you a story about how California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. The first! Those were our words! But it turns out an unlikely deep South state was technically the first. Here’s why you’ve never heard that Louisiana was the first state to legalize medical marijuana (technically.)

This is the first installment of a series we’re calling “Medicine vs. Marijuana,” about the odd ways legal cannabis can intersect with our healthcare system.

Transcript

Ann Marie Awad:
From Colorado Public Radio and PRX. This is On Something.

Fred Mills:
I hope you can understand a Cajun from Louisiana on … you’re talking to.

New Speaker:
I can understand you just fine.

Fred Mills:
Okay, good.

Ann Marie Awad:
Besides being a Louisiana native, Fred Mills is many things.

Fred Mills:
I’m a member of the Republican party. I represent Southwest Louisiana, really in a kind of Cajun territory. I’m a pharmacist, bank president of a rural community bank in, in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana .

Ann Marie Awad:
So a lawmaker, a pharmacist and a banker.

Fred Mills:
Yeah. I kind of use a joke all the time. I’m in drugs and money.

Ann Marie Awad:
In 1997, Fred was appointed executive director of the Louisiana board of pharmacy. And he started getting calls from people asking how they could get their hands on medical marijuana. These calls were coming from folks with epilepsy, Parkinson’s, glaucoma.

Fred Mills:
They were just like, you know, ‘I’ve tried everything and where can I get it?’

Ann Marie Awad:
But medical marijuana wasn’t legal in Louisiana or was it? Fred did a bit of research and found to his surprise that in 1978, the state actually had legalized. Even more surprising, it was the first state in the country to do it. So medical marijuana was legal, but it just wasn’t that simple.

Fred Mills:
It’s just legal on paper, and I keep getting calls. And a lot of frustrated folks. I said, I think there’s a gap in the law.

Ann Marie Awad:
And he, Fred Mills, a conservative, Republican lawmaker decided that he would be the man to fill that gap. This is On Something. Stories about life after legalization. I’m Ann Marie Awad. We’re doing something a little different today. Today is the beginning of our miniseries called medicine versus marijuana. This is the first in a three-part look at the ways that legal weed can interact with our healthcare system. And our first story starts with a pharmacist. In fact, before anyone in Louisiana knew Fred Mills as a state senator, a lot of people knew him from these commercials for his business, Cashway Pharmacy.

Fred Mills:
Fred Mills here, Cashway Pharmacy in Parks. Can I help you?

Ann Marie Awad:
So at this point, the ad goes split screen. And on one side is Fred on the phone all buttoned up and his white coat. And on the other side is Fred on the phone in drag as Taunt Pills, this raunchy old Cajun lady character that he created. And in this particular commercial, which is my favorite of them all, she’s got the phone in one hand and she’s clumsily eating seafood with the other.

Fred Mills:
I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve acquired crabs. (Yeah, I caught them last night and they fresh fresh … Bring the whole clinic, I caught enough crabs for everybody.) I guess the banker in me is conservative. The pharmacist in me is liberal.

Ann Marie Awad:
And the pharmacist in him is well known, at least in his area. I mean, his phone number is in all of these commercials and he made a ton of these commercials. And when he started getting calls in 1997, from sick people looking for medical marijuana, they just kept coming. They followed him all the way to his state senate seat, which he won more than 14 years later in 2011. But this time he finally felt like he was in a position to do something about it.

Fred Mills:
I was probably naive to the standpoint that I thought people would be very sympathetic about, well, if a person has cancer, and this is something that person wants that I felt kind of being a pharmacist that, you know, people would respect that patient’s decision and that doctor’s decision. But I had a lot to learn.

Ann Marie Awad:
The first nut to crack was what happened? If medical marijuana was made legal in 1978, where was the weed at?

Fred Mills:
There’s no way to buy it, to recommend it to quality control. I said, there’s just not a market.

Tony Guarisco:
I am considered the oldest living author of marijuana in the United States.

Ann Marie Awad:
This is Tony Guarisco. Legalizing was his idea in the first place way back in 1978.

Tony Guarisco:
I am now referred to as the O G. So I asked my kids, what is that? They said, ‘Dad, that’s the original gangster. It’s rap for The Pioneer. I said, ‘Okay.’ So my son got a t-shirt made for me that says OG on it.

Ann Marie Awad:
Back in the 70s, Tony was a scrappy young state senator from just outside New Orleans who had only just been elected to his first term. A liberal lawmaker in a very conservative state.

Tony Guarisco:
I remember one time I had lost so many times on different issues that, um, people would say, ‘Tony, I think you’re right, but you’re ahead of your time.’

Ann Marie Awad:
That is a fact. The state often hailed as the first to legalize medical marijuana, even on this podcast, is California, but really Tony and Louisiana beat them by 15 years. And a bit more historical perspective. Tony was thinking of this less than a decade after marijuana became a Schedule One substance at the federal level, just in case you were thinking that weed was any less illegal. In spite of that, Tony says he got the idea from reading articles about the potential for cannabis as a medicine for cancer patients, even way back then.

Tony Guarisco:
I read a lot and I begin to see that there may be something with cannabis that would help people to relieve pain and suffering. I had no expertise in this field at all. And I saw something that might be possible outside of, um, pharmaceuticals that might help people. But once I wanted to do it, I wanted to do it. I wasn’t going to be dissuaded.

Ann Marie Awad:
And he wasn’t just reading about it either. He knew someone who was using marijuana as a last resort.

Tony Guarisco:
A woman who had a young son, I think 12,14 years old, he had cancer and he was taking chemotherapy. She was desperate. She was giving marijuana to her son. And it was the only thing that would give him relief from the side effects. She said they were horrific, dry heaves and always sick from the chemotherapy. But the marijuana worked. She said she got it from a policeman friend who took it from the property room. So she was breaking several laws.

Ann Marie Awad:
Tony introduced two bills related to marijuana. One would have decriminalized possession of a half pound or less. You’d get just a summons and no jail time for carrying around what could be a pretty generous amount of weed. The second bill would legalize medical marijuana for people with certain illnesses.

Tony Guarisco:
I thought I had a real hard chance.

Ann Marie Awad:
Lots of states were decriminalizing in the seventies in response to the federal government cracking down on weed at the start of the decade. In spite of that trend, Tony’s decriminalization bill failed, but the medical marijuana bill passed.

Tony Guarisco:
I had some conservative, close friends in the legislature that supported it. He said, you know, it’s just, it’s just the right thing to do here.

Ann Marie Awad:
Louisiana’s governor at the time was a Democrat named Edwin Edwards. And when Tony’s bill showed up on his desk …

Tony Guarisco:
And I asked him to sign it and he did that, I think he was kind of bemused by it.

Ann Marie Awad:
No one was more surprised that the bill became law than Tony himself. He even got a little reputation among his constituents.

Tony Guarisco:
When I would see people in my hometown or in my district, they were very cordial and friendly to me, but they liked to make jokes about it. You better watch it, man. You know, you might be doing too much of that dope.

Ann Marie Awad:
But a rare legislative victory for Tony didn’t really change anything for the people of Louisiana. That’s how the Schoolhouse Rock song goes, right? Now I’m a law on a commission is going to be formed and a bunch of meetings are going to be had …

Tony Guarisco:
Well, you pass the bill, you pass the law and it’ll be implemented. People will take it up and they’ll follow through, but that didn’t happen.

Ann Marie Awad:
In fact, nothing happened. Essentially it was up to Governor Edwards to implement the new law. It was right there on the piece of paper he had signed. The next step was for the head of the department of health and hospitals to appoint the marijuana prescription review board, five people all required to be physicians or pharmacists. They would oversee the creation of a medical marijuana program in Louisiana, except there’s no evidence to suggest that anyone did any of this. No order from the governor, no proof that anyone even had a meeting about this after it was passed. And at the time, no one really noticed, not even Tony.

Tony Guarisco:
I thought they’d go right along and do what they needed to do. There was a board that was to be filled. It didn’t get filled. So that’s kind of, it just lay in fallow ground for a long time.

Ann Marie Awad:
But the law is on the books. Anyone can find it. If nothing else, it’s a record that someone tried to make it happen. So you said your senate staff had tried to look into, you know, what happened with this law after it was signed. And what did they find?

Fred Mills:
They couldn’t figure it out. Cause some records have never been archived. And you know, we have just a better archiving system right now where we can, you know, all of our testimonies on tape and you can see it off the internet. Um, they really could not figure it out.

Ann Marie Awad:
So decades and decades later, Fred Mills decided to just start from scratch. In 2014, he introduced his own medical marijuana bill.

Fred Mills:
My whole aspect was that I would break it down into three components. Take Tony’s legislation and put some meat on the bones.

Ann Marie Awad:
Fred needed people to testify in favor of this bill in the state house.

Fred Mills:
I received a call from … I named the legislation after her, a lady by the name of Alison Neustrom called me up. And she called me up and said, ‘Fred, I’d really like you to consider this legislation.’ She said, ‘I have a debilitating disease and I’m not going to live to probably see it. But this makes absolutely no sense that people can’t get this product, that is this drug, or this medication.’

Ann Marie Awad:
Fred also reached out to the OG – Tony Guarisco.

Tony Guarisco:
Thank you Mr. Chairman, members of the committee. I, um, once sat where you guys sat, not in this committee, uh, I just wanna let you know, I didn’t just drop off a turnip truck about something.

Ann Marie Awad:
So how did it feel to be back in that building after so long?

Tony Guarisco:
It felt very strange. And I remember I testified alongside of a beautiful young woman who worked for the state who, um, her name was Alison and the present law is named after her. And she had, I think, colorectal cancer stage four.

Alison Neustrom:
And at the time when I was diagnosed, the doctors were very frank and said, plan in your life in months, not years, this is how aggressive this is. And while there are medications that are available for nausea and for pain, many of them are very strong, uh, which make it hard to be awake and engaged. When I want to be like — when my two-year-old daughter is home from daycare. And so I’m here to ask you to please consider this option. I believe patients and doctors in Louisiana should have this option as patients in other states do as well.

Ann Marie Awad:
Fred also got the support of Alison’s dad, a well known sheriff who helped him make the case to law enforcement. But even with all of that, the bill failed.

Fred Mills:
I got calls from folks that really, really needed the medication. And I would say most of them are violating the law in one way or another. And they said, don’t give up.

Ann Marie Awad:
Fred went back to the drawing board and rebuilt the bill to make it a bit more conservative and to offer more concessions to law enforcement.

Fred Mills:
I made a promise to law enforcement that I was not looking to do crazy things. I was just looking to make sure people had this product and this medication in the right form or fashion.

Ann Marie Awad:
Wait, hold on. What are crazy things? Like, what did they define as crazy things.

Fred Mills:
Well they saw this as creeping. They saw this as you know, me being a pharmacist that on day one, after we passed this , recreational (marijuana) was going to be available.

Ann Marie Awad:
Oh, like a gateway drug.

Fred Mills:
It was, it was, yeah…They saw this as, and they use the terminology “creeping” that this was going to be just, you opening the door. And this is what this is. And it took me a while to tell people that’s not my intent. That is not my intent.

Ann Marie Awad:
Fred was down, but he wasn’t out. We’ll be back after a short break.

Ann Marie Awad:
The following year in 2015, Fred stepped back up to the plate once more with a new bill. This one made it a lot farther, all the way to the Senate floor for a vote. And on that day, when the vote was to take place, Fred says something happened in that crowded chamber.

Fred Mills:
I will never forget it. When I was doing my closing. One of the young participants in the, in the audience had a major seizure at that time, a major seizure. You could hear the wheelchair kind of bouncing up and down. And I can remember saying, ‘This legislation’s for this person. It’s not for you. It’s not for anybody else. It’s for this person here. Why would you deny this person, this opportunity to have this drug and who are you to make that determination?’ And I think that kinda got me over the top. I think that was, that was something I’ll never forget.

Ann Marie Awad:
The bill passed. The governor signed. And for the second time in history, the state of Louisiana had made medical marijuana legal. The following year, another wave of states legalized recreational weed. Nevada, California, Maine, and Massachusetts. Marijuana legalization in these states got more votes than Donald Trump did. All of those states have had their own delays in rolling out legal weed and medical marijuana didn’t just instantly appear in Louisiana either. And for Fred, that has meant that the phone has kept ringing.

Fred Mills:
I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received from folks and I would just tell them, ‘Look, it’s, I apologize to you, but we gotta get it right the first time. If that first delivery of product has contamination in it, or people get sick, it’s over, we’ve got to hit a home run the first time we get out of the gates.

Ann Marie Awad:
It took three whole years to set up a functioning medical marijuana program in Louisiana. Remember this was meant to be a pretty conservative approach for a pretty conservative state. It would take all the way until summer of 2019. When the first medical marijuana patient in the state triumphantly walked out of Willow Pharmacy in Madisonville, Louisiana holding the first legally obtained dose of marijuana in the state’s history.

News Reporter:
First in line was 80-year-old former state senator Tony Guarisco. Back in 1978, he wrote the first law for therapeutic use of marijuana. He was a young man, then in his 30s.

Ann Marie Awad:
The OG.

Tony Guarisco:
Here, generations have suffered and not gotten medicine because of the recalcitrance of people in power who never implemented the law that I passed.

Ann Marie Awad:
After that, Tony went on to take out his dropper of cannabis oil. He uses it for his glaucoma and take a couple drops in his mouth for the TV cameras.

Tony Guarisco:
They had patients who were waiting, who would come after me, that were waiting there to get their turn. They had a young veteran, uh, who had been in the Gulf War and he was suffering from P B S … what do you call it?

Ann Marie Awad:
PTSD?

Tony Guarisco:
Yes. And after I did my dose and all that kind of stuff, he said, Hey man, can I take a picture with you? I said, of course. So I stood next to this man side by side and he they’re getting ready to take a picture. And he turns his head toward the side of mine. And he kisses me on the side of the head and says, thank you, man. And that’s the picture I got. That was worth the trip.

Ann Marie Awad:
How did that feel? I mean, this whole experience, must’ve been so surreal for you.

Tony Guarisco:
It was surreal and it was wonderful. Victory at last.

Ann Marie Awad:
Yeah, you’re getting a little famous.

Ann Marie Awad:
Something changed, right? I mean, something had to have changed between 1978 when Tony passed one law and 2015, when Fred passed another. The Pew Research Center has been tracking public opinion on legalization since 1969. Around the time that Tony introduced his bill in 1978, less than a third of Americans supported legalizing marijuana. As of last year, two thirds of Americans think it should be legal. What happened in that time? Well, going into the 80s, the federal government really cracked down. Halfway through the 90s, California legalized medical marijuana in response to the HIV epidemic. And the early 2000s more states started to pick up steam and then going into the next decade, the Obama administration shields legal states from federal drug enforcement. Meanwhile, legal weed starts to become a big lucrative business. So who are the holdouts? Who are that last third that still don’t agree with legalization? Fred has one theory.

Fred Mills:
I find some of it was generational driven because I had some really staunch Democrats had voted no. And their aspect was, I will never vote for a marijuana bill, no matter what. But then when the bill made it to the house side, in the house of representatives right now, and at that time, it’s is much younger, a much younger crowd.

Ann Marie Awad:
Really.

Fred Mills:
They really did not have a big problem with it. I mean, it passed pretty well there. And every time legislation from marijuana’s there, it’s like, it’s not that big a deal to us. Now some of them, yes, but I don’t, it’s a much easier, part of the house to, um, to debate it.

Ann Marie Awad:
That’s because Fred says he feels like they’re more likely to see the potential. Now that it’s legal, Louisiana lawmakers can continue to refine and tweak the program to really get it right. And Tony for his part is happy that it’s finally happening in his lifetime. When people hear this story, what do you want them to take away from all of this, about how politics and government and Louisiana work?

Tony Guarisco:
I am really proud that I can say that this little state did this. And for a long time they would say other people did it, but they didn’t . We did. And I was really happy to have been a big part of that. And it’s good to be the OG. So if anybody ever asks you say, I know the real guy.

Ann Marie Awad:
And are you just sick of reporters like me calling you up to talk about weed?

Tony Guarisco:
I love it.

Ann Marie Awad:
Okay. That’s good to hear. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a podcast anymore.

Ann Marie Awad:
On Something is a labor of love reported and written by me Ann Marie Awad. On Something is a production of Colorado Public Radio’s Audio Innovation Studio. This show was produced by Mark Pagan, Tasha Watts and Rebecca Romberg. Our editor is Curtis Fox. Music by Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher. Our executive producers are Kevin Dale and Brad Turner. On Something is made possible by lots of talented people like Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen, Dave Burdick, Alison Borden, Matt Herz, Kendall Smith, and Jodi Girsch. And our illustrator is Iris Gottlieb. See more of their art on Instagram @IrisGottlieb. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at cpr.org.

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