New Orleans is a drinking town, thanks not only to its legendary music scene and seasonal festivals but also its status as one of the only US cities where open containers of alcohol are allowed on the street. Don’t like a bar but want to take advantage of its cheap drinks? No problem. Just order your cocktail in a to-go cup and sip it while checking out the nearest parade.
In contrast, there’s nowhere near the same degree of public openness when it comes to cannabis, but it is coming along. Though in the heart of the Deep South, where no states have yet legalized it, visitors to the Big Easy are still liable to get offered joints, edibles and other pot products in passing around hip nightlife areas like Frenchmen Street. Nonetheless, in the French Quarter there exists a brick-and-mortar cannabis dispensary, Vieux Carré CBD.
As the name suggests, Vieux Carré’s dual locations don’t sell cannabis containing the Schedule I-listed compound THC but are part of the state’s budding market for CBD, the non-psychoactive compound in hemp that’s being increasingly studied and applied for its medicinal benefits. But for Louisiana as for many non-legal states, selling CBD isolates in the form of joints, flower, topicals, edibles, etc., is still an uncharted territory when it comes to the law.
“The gray areas are where we fit right now,” says Michael Cheek, the owner of Vieux Carré as well as a local chef and restauranteur. “All the lawyers basically told me, there’s no laws on this stuff, so it’s hard to give an answer of what’s legal and what’s not legal.”
Several CBD businesses already operated in the city when Cheek and his partner set about founding Vieux Carré last summer, and their opening in mid-October coincided almost perfectly with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which lifted the ban on commercial hemp production, potentially paving the way for both state and federal CBD regulation. Other canna-centric businesses around the Crescent City include mobile companies like Weed World Candies, whose vibrant vans can be found cruising or parked along city streets, distributing gummies and other edibles that strategically neglect to mention their CBD-only status.
Legislators in Louisiana and New Orleans, in particular, had already taken baby steps towards normalizing cannabis in 2016 when the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance decriminalizing marijuana possession within the city. Two months later, the state House of Representative approved a bill legalizing certain (non-inhaled) medical marijuana products, authorizing the opening of eight dispensaries and the licensing of 8,000 medical consumers.
To this date, those would-be patients are still waiting.
“They still don’t have product on their shelves,” says Cheek. “These people were told they could open a dispensary, so they put their time, money, research into these places and now they’ve been waiting three years with nothing.”
While the state drags its feet on licensed medical cannabis, some of its agencies have in the meantime targeted CBD sellers and head shops for potential enforcement. The Louisiana Board of Pharmacy (LBP) and the Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) have sent letters threatening other CBD shops with legal citation on a technicality, for products containing trace amounts of the illicit THC.
“The ATC backed off because they got a lot of backlash, is my understanding,” Cheek relates.
Support for laxer cannabis policies, in general, is strong and getting stronger throughout the state, with 79 percent of Louisiana residents supporting medical legalization in a 2014 LSU poll. In New Orleans, however, there’s an undercurrent of opposition from those fearing how legal cannabis could hinder alcohol sales in one of the nation’s biggest drinking markets. On the other hand, there’s also an inkling that a strong cannabis market could help reinvigorate the economy and alleviate joblessness in what’s now the nation’s fourth poorest state.
“The city really wants this to go through,” says Cheek. “We have the 4/20 fest this weekend, and the city had actually reached out to one of the girls throwing it and asked her to do it.”
Anticipating big things, Cheek and his partners at Vieux Carré envision franchising out to 20 to 30 stores throughout the Southeast within the next few years, staying at the forefront of what’s promised to become a multibillion-dollar industry. He also hints at his involvement in another project to open a museum focused on New Orleans and its cannabis history.
For now, however, those plans are on hold until the legal framework gets pinned down. The litigation and advocacy work continues every quarter in the state legislature to make medical marijuana a reality finally, and then from there to pass a bill authorizing and regulating sales of high CBD cannabis, if not psychoactive THC strains as well. The currently proposed bill, Cheek explains, would legalize strains with less than 0.3 percent THC for consumers over 21-years-old, while imposing a 15 percent tax on each product.
There’s a lot still that could change or go wrong in the passage of such a bill, but at the very least, a more cohesive policy would take cannabis out of its current legal limbo and bring a renewed sense of clarity to the state’s disorganized industry.
“I think 2020 would probably be the year,” Cheek predicts. “A lot of people are pushing for it – I just hope Louisiana is smart enough to act before being the 47th, 48th, or 50th state like they are on every other decision besides alcohol.”