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NORML

Time for our biennial hope for better pot laws

Don’t get your hopes too high. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Five years after Texas legalized medical marijuana for people with debilitating illnesses, advocates and industry experts say the state’s strict rules, red tape and burdensome barriers to entry have left the program largely inaccessible to those it was intended to help.

But with a new legislative session gaveling in next month, some Texas lawmakers see an opportunity to fix the state’s medical cannabis program — known as the Compassionate Use Program — by further expanding eligibility and loosening some restrictions so Texas’ laws more closely resemble those of other states that allow the treatment.

There are 3,519 Texans registered with the state to use medical marijuana, though advocates say 2 million people are eligible based on current law.

Texas’ program pales in overall participation and scope compared with other states: It has fewer enrolled patients and businesses than most other states with medical marijuana programs. At least some form of medical marijuana is legal in 47 states nationwide, but Texas’ restrictions put it in the bottom 11 in terms of accessibility, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We’re pretty dang close to the bottom. We’re pretty far behind,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, referring to how access to Texas’ medical marijuana program fares compared with other states. Menéndez will push legislation in the next session to further expand the program.

[…]

As of Dec. 14, at least seven bills had been filed by lawmakers seeking to expand the Compassionate Use Program. Menéndez is authoring a far-reaching bill that would make more patients eligible, strike the THC cap and lower business fees, among other changes.

“I think we’d see a lot more participation if we had a real medical cannabis program,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

In the past, medical cannabis bills have faced opposition from lawmakers who see it as a path to legalizing recreational marijuana, Menéndez said. But he says expanding the program will put decisions about who can access the medicine into the hands of doctors.

When the Senate voted to include more patients in 2019, state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said he was concerned the legislation was more of a “cliff” than a slippery slope.

“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to recreational use,” Birdwell said. “I wouldn’t be comfortable going any further than this because of what I’m seeing in Colorado, Washington and Oregon and what’s happening in those states. I am highly guarded.”

There are a lot more words in there about what Texas does and doesn’t do, and who is affected, and how much better things would be if we had more legal pot, not to mention the economic boost, and you should read them. And then you should remember that nothing is going to pass as long as Dan Patrick – who is for some reason not mentioned in the story – remains opposed to any further loosening of marijuana laws. I support a wholesale loosening of these laws, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that such a loosening would have popular support. Which is why I’d like to see the Democratic slate in 2022 go all in on this. It’s a winning issue, and we’re going to need winning issues if we hope to push Dan Patrick out of there. In the meantime, by all means call your Rep or your Senator and tell them what you support. Maybe your preferred bill will pass the House, or get a Senate committee hearing. That’s likely the best you’ll get for now, but at least it’s something.

The Texas Compassionate Use Act

Looks like this will be the main marijuana-related action in the Legislature this session.

Two Texas lawmakers have filed bills that would allow epilepsy patients to use medicinal oils that contain a therapeutic component found in marijuana.

But some medical marijuana advocates are reluctant to support the proposed Texas Compassionate Use Act, calling it “appeasement legislation” that would do little to help Texans with epilepsy — and nothing for those with other diseases that can be treated with medical marijuana, such as cancer. Among those advocates is the family of Alexis Bortell, a 9-year-old Dallas-area girl with epilepsy.

“If these bills passed as they are written now, we will be forced to relocate” to Colorado, said Dean Bortell, whose daughter Alexis has become the face of the medical marijuana issue in Texas. “We are hoping they modify the bills in committee and that we can support them. The last thing we want to do is testify against them. But in their current form, we would have no choice.”

The twin proposals — House Bill 892 from Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and Senate Bill 339 from Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler — would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component found in marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. By 2018, the measure would allow the state to regulate and distribute these oils to epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication. It would allow the oils to be ingested, but not smoked.

Texas is one of 16 states where marijuana is illegal for medical and recreational use. In recent years, 11 states have legalized CBD oil for certain medical conditions. Twenty-three other states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing broader medical marijuana use.

[…]

“I have been talking to a number of members that feel like this is a way to separate those that want to see the therapeutic benefits of the substance without the potential for abuse,” said Klick, who is a registered nurse. “As is, [these oils] have no street value and no psychoactive effect. If we bump that ratio up, I think we will lose support.”

Klick said there will also be a loss of political support if her bill is expanded to include other ailments, such as cancer, Crohn’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

[…]

Critics of the proposed Texas Compassionate Use Act don’t think it goes far enough. They have concerns about the requirements the bill would put in place for patients, who would have to try two epilepsy medications at maximum dosage before trying CBD oils. In addition, they object to the bill’s requirement that a patient may not try medical marijuana unless no other FDA-approved treatments are available. Finally, critics don’t like how long the implementation of the measure would take, with the first dispensaries scheduled to be licensed by 2018.

“If you look at some other states with CBD-only legislation, you will see that bad laws can be worse than no laws at all,” said Shaun McAlister, the executive director of the Dallas-Forth Worth branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “We need immediate access to whole-plant marijuana, not appeasement legislation.”

His colleague Tracy Ansley added: “We don’t consider these medical marijuana bills. These are medical hemp bills.”

I don’t know enough about the medical science to have a sufficiently informed opinion about the merits of these bills. My general sympathies are with decriminalization, so as far as that goes I’d prefer to see something broader. This statement I got from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) a couple of weeks ago when the bills were filed sounds about right to me:

RAMP has the utmost respect for Representative Klick’s and Senator Eltife’s advocacy for patients with epilepsy to have access to safe medical marijuana when no other treatment options provide relief. However, it is clear from experience in other states that CBD-only legislation has failed to generate the high-CBD strains that epileptic patients desperately need. The Texas Compassionate Use Act limits the market to such a degree that people will be unlikely to invest money and time into the extremely difficult practice of medical marijuana cultivation. Colorado, a state with whole plant access, has lead the nation in high-CBD marijuana strains while also helping patients who benefit from THC – such as those with cancer, muscular sclerosis, and PTSD. RAMP advocates a bill that allows the entire plant to be accessed as medicine for qualifying conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, and conditions causing seizures, severe pain, severe nausea, and muscle spasms.

If this is truly the best that can be done in the current environment, then I’d say it’s better than nothing and worth supporting, with the hope of building on it later. It would also put some of those predictions about when marijuana might be legalized in Texas into some perspective. We’ll see if this is all there is.