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medical marijuana

Small revisions to medical marijuana law passed

You know what I’m going to say about this, right?

A watered-down expansion of Texas’ medical marijuana program is headed to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott after the state House voted to accept significant changes to the bill made in the Senate.

House Bill 1535 expands eligibility for the Texas Compassionate Use Program to people with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder. The Senate stripped out a provision that would’ve allowed any Texan with chronic pain to access medical marijuana.

The bill also caps the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient that produces a high, at 1%. That’s only a nominal increase from the 0.5% allowed under current law. The bill as passed by the House capped the amount of THC at 5%, still far lower than most states that have authorized the plant for medicinal use.

The measure falls short of what many advocates had hoped for. Its sponsor, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said on the House floor that her counterparts in the Senate were unwilling to budge. She begrudgingly asked the House to concur with the overhaul, rather than reject amendments tacked on in the upper chamber and send the bill to a conference committee.

[…]

Fewer than 6,000 Texans have enrolled in the Compassionate Use Program. About 2 million people are eligible under current law.

Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, lamented that the proposal in its final form was “unreasonably restrictive,” despite wide bipartisan support for legalizing cannabis. A February poll from the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune found that 60% of Texans said small or large amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal.

“While we are glad to see the Compassionate Use Program being expanded, it’s disappointing to see Texas inching forward while other states, like Alamaba for example, are moving forward with real medical cannabis programs,” Fazio said. “It’s doing so little and we wish [lawmakers] were doing more.”

See here for the previous entry and a clear explanation of my position, if for some reason that was a mystery to you. The problem is super simple to state: Dan Patrick will not allow any significant loosening of the state’s restrictive marijuana laws, even for medical marijuana, as long as he is Lt. Governor. The solution is obvious. Making that happen is harder, but that’s really all there is to it. The Chron has more.

News flash: Dan Patrick does not support loosening marijuana laws

In other news, summer is hot and it sometimes floods in Houston.

With less than two weeks left in Texas’ legislative session, medical marijuana advocates are ratcheting up pressure on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who they say is blocking an effort to expand the state’s Compassionate Use Program.

House Bill 1535, by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, would expand the state’s medical cannabis program to include those with chronic pain, all cancer patients and Texans with post-traumatic stress disorder. It would also authorize the Department of State Health Services to add additional qualifying conditions through administrative rulemaking. Current law requires the Legislature to pass a bill to expand eligibility.

The Texas House voted 134-12 last month to send the proposal to the state Senate, where it has languished in a legislative purgatory. The upper chamber received the bill May 3, but it has not yet been referred to a committee, let alone voted on and sent to the floor. Wednesday is the last day the Senate can take up bills.

Patrick, who leads the Senate, has the final say on which bills are considered and to which committees they’ll be referred. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s difficult to come up with any explanation that makes sense as to why the lieutenant governor would block this legislation,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. She added that the legislation is a “carefully crafted and moderate expansion” with wide bipartisan backing. Fazio said state Sens. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who are both doctors, have voiced support for HB 1535.

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Earlier this week, a Texas Senate committee advanced a proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis. House Bill 2593 would reduce the penalty for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana to a class C misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time. That measure is poised for a vote on the Senate floor.

This is not the first time Patrick has exercised his power to effectively kill cannabis-related proposals. In 2019, he likewise refused to give a hearing to a medical marijuana expansion measure. A Patrick spokesperson told The Texas Tribune at the time that the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

With all due respect to Heather Fazio, Dan Patrick has always been clear about why he blocks bills like these: He thinks marijuana is bad and he thinks that efforts to decriminalize it are dangerous. The mystery to me is why we get so many optimistic stories about reducing penalties and promoting cannabis without any reckoning of this fact. He has a long track record of this behavior, and he has never said anything to indicate that his position is softening. I understand why anyone would not want to take Dan Patrick at his word, but this is one of those places where you should, because his actions speak very clearly and consistently. I will say this again: The only path to real reform of our state’s marijuana laws requires getting rid of Dan Patrick. As long as he holds power, pro-pot bills (with a few very limited exceptions) will wither and die in the Legislature. I really don’t know why this is so hard to understand.

UPDATE: The Trib story now reflects the fact that HB1535 was finally referred to a committee on Thursday, giving it a chance to pass out of the Senate. Time is short, and as noted it took more than two weeks for the bill to even be assigned to a committee. More progressive marijuana reform bills, ones that would reduce criminal penalties, never stood a chance. In other words, Dan Patrick may have given a bit under pressure, but the basic point remains. Marijuana reform doesn’t go any farther than he will allow, and he won’t allow much.

The Texas cannabis industry sure is optimistic

I remain more skeptical, at least of their short-term capacity.

“I suspect if you grabbed a random person on the street and asked them if cannabis was legal in Texas, they would probably look at you like you’re crazy and say ‘no,’” said Marcus Ruark, president of goodblend Texas, which is preparing [a site in San Marcos] for its 63,000-square-foot marijuana growing facility.

The notion that it’s “crazy” is because cannabis is still illegal in Texas, which is home to some of the strictest anti-marijuana laws in the nation. But a gradual expansion of the state’s limited medical marijuana program in recent years could soon give way to an industry that’s accessible to a broader swath of Texans.

While still relatively low, the number of Texans utilizing the state’s medicinal marijuana Compassionate Use Program has grown by 180 percent over the past year. Some estimate there are about 2 million Texas patients eligible to use cannabis, but many just don’t know about the program.

“So we’ve started making an investment in that and getting the word out and increasing awareness, and I think that’s definitely helping,” Ruark said.

For now, goodblend Texas is one of only three companies licensed to cultivate and sell marijuana in the state. The others are Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation and Fluent, which is a subsidiary of Cansortium, a publicly traded marijuana holdings company.

Statewide, just over 300 physicians are licensed to prescribe medical marijuana. And as of March, there were only 4,919 patients registered with the Compassionate Use Program, according to the Department of Public Safety. A year earlier, just 1,757 people were registered to use medical marijuana in Texas.

The number of medical marijuana patients in the state is “growing about 10 percent month over month every month, so it’s actually pretty robust growth for the patients who are accessing the program,” Ruark said.

While steadily increasing, the number of Texas patients pales in comparison to what’s seen in nearby states such as Oklahoma, where roughly 8 percent of the state’s population — over 300,000 people — are medical marijuana patients, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. In Louisiana, which has a population less than one-fifth of that of Texas, there were 4,350 medical marijuana users at the end of 2019.

Still, the growth in numbers of Texas patients utilizing medical marijuana is prompting the $25 million investment by Parallel, the parent company of goodblend Texas, to build in San Marcos.

That’s a good growth rate, but one of the reasons why the growth rate is so high is because it’s starting from such a small base. If the number of patients registered with the Compassionate Use Program were to grow at an annual rate of 200% from the point given above, it would take almost three years to get to 100,000 patients. It will take more than that $25 million invested in a pot farm in San Marcos to make that happen, and they’re going to need bigger numbers than that to really make some money.

Even with the medical marijuana patient count already growing, a bill passed last month by the Texas House would massively expand the pool of patients eligible to use cannabis.

House Bill 1535 would allow patients suffering from chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer or other conditions approved by the state health department to be treated with medical cannabis. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth.

To become law, it still must clear the Senate and be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

It would be a small step toward changing Texas’ status as one of the most restrictive among the 47 states that allow medical marijuana programs. When the Compassionate Use Program was created by the Legislature in 2015, it initially allowed only patients with intractable epilepsy to be treated with marijuana.

In 2019, another bill allowed those with particular diseases, such as autism and incurable neurodegenerative disorders, or people with terminal cancer, to be eligible.

HB1535 was passed out of the House on April 29, and received by the Senate on May 3. I have no idea what fate awaits it in the Senate, but as we have discussed before, the Senate in general is more hostile to any loosening of existing marijuana laws, including medical marijuana, and Dan Patrick has given no signal that he intends to allow a bill like HB1535 to come to the floor, let alone pass. Yet every cycle we get this kind of blue-sky, if-only reporting, in the same way we get breathless stories about casino interests spending money to pursue the same doomed expansion they’ve been seeking for at least the last 20 years, and I just don’t get it. I say this as someone who would like to see full-on decriminalization – indeed, I want to make that a campaign issue – but also as someone who needs evidence to buy into the idea that Things Really Are Different This Time. Wishing and hoping and a pot farm in San Marcos will only get you so far.