Once Again, Texas Teeters on the Edge of Reform


Texas is teetering on the edge of medical cannabis reform—a place it has been in the past, only to pull back. In votes Monday and Tuesday, the Texas House advanced a pair of bills that aim to expand the state’s medical cannabis program. The bills will head next to the Senate, which has sent mixed messages.

The first House bill, HB 1365, passed 128-20 in a final vote Tuesday. The second, HB 3703, passed an initial voice vote and is expected to face a final vote on Wednesday. Both would reform the state’s Compassionate Use Program—though one more than the other.

Eduardo “Eddie” Lucio III, a Democrat representing Brownsville, introduced HB 1365. It expands legal medical cannabis beyond patients with intractable epilepsy to those with a “debilitating medical condition,” including cancer, muscular dystrophy, Crohn’s disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It explicitly allows patients to vape cannabis medicines but retains the ban on smoking. It allows licensed medical-cannabis producers to operate up to four dispensaries rather than just one. (Companies can open more than four if the Texas Department of Safety “determines that additional locations are necessary.”) It also establishes a “Cannabis Therapeutic Research Review Board” to approve studies on the plant’s medical value and “conduct periodic reviews of the research and participants.”

While an earlier version of HB 1365 eliminated “low-THC” language from the state’s current Compassionate Use Act, the version that passed retained these restrictions. Also still in the bill: a controversial requirement that doctors “prescribe” and not “recommend” cannabis; cannabis is not an FDA-approved drug so doctors cannot “prescribe” it, among other legal reasons for the terminology.

While introducing the legislation, Lucio told other legislators he was “very thankful” to bring a bill that could help “thousands of people in our state who are too sick to function or live in constant, debilitating pain.” He said activists had played an integral role in bringing the bill for a vote, in particular citing veterans and “passionate mothers” of sick children.

Two amendments passed after a short debate. The first, by Mayes Middleton, a Republican out of Wallisville, gives the legislature, rather than a state review board, final say over which illnesses could qualify someone for the program. The second, by John Zerwas, another Republican, out of Richmond, eases requirements on which doctors can offer a required second opinion endorsing a patient for the program. Currently, only certified neurologists and epileptologists can refer patients. Zerwas’s amendment allows any Texas doctor to fill that role.

Fort Worth Republican Stephanie Klick proposed the second bill, HB 3703. A registered nurse, Klick introduced the original Compassionate Use Act in 2015. Klick’s new bill expands medical-cannabis access to people with multiple sclerosis, spasticity, and all forms of epilepsy (not just intractable kinds). It authorizes “low-THC cannabis research” and allows licensed producers to “operate more than one dispensing location” if the Texas DPS determines more than one location “necessary.” Klick said it was a “great honor” to be working on cannabis issues again, describing her bill during testimony as a “truly medical program that follows the scientific data.”

Before the vote, Klick added an amendment loosening requirements on second-opinion doctors in the program.

Lucio’s bill now heads for the Texas Senate, which has sent mixed messages about whether it will consider reforms to medical-cannabis access in Texas. Klick’s bill will likely follow shortly. To stand a chance of passage before the next legislative session in 2021, the bills will need to pass the Senate before the regular session ends on May 27.

Under current law, Texas allows people diagnosed with intractable epilepsy to use certain medical cannabis products, like oils with less than .5 percent THC. Only three companies are authorized to produce and sell medical cannabis.

Texas has been here before, teetering on the edge of reform. The state legislature only meets for around 140 days at a time, and only on odd-numbered years. During the last session in 2017, two cannabis-reform bills seemed primed to pass—but they simply didn’t make it in time. “Our clock has run out on us tonight on House Bill 2107,” State Representative Jason Isaac, then a Republican legislator from Austin, said in a Facebook Live video from 2017, referring to a bill that would have also expanded the state’s Compassionate Use Program.

A plurality of Texans want to fully legalize cannabis, according to a recent poll by Emerson Polling. But voter support doesn’t equal lawmaker action. Will 2019 be a year of cannabis-reform in the second-largest state? Or will Texas voters be forced to wait until 2021?

Heather Fazio, a state cannabis activist and spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, sees a path to change. In an interview with Cannabis Wire, she noted that cannabis reform has already come further this year than it did in 2017.

“We’ve already passed the point where we fell short last time,” she said.

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