All Michelle Walker could do was sit and watch her epileptic and autistic son, Vincent, seize for hours as federally approved pharmaceuticals failed. Holding on to hope for a better life, they left their home in San Antonio and moved to Colorado to treat Vincent with medical marijuana.

“We had no choice,” Walker, a director of advocacy group Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana Autism (MOMMA) said. “It’s quite literally a matter of life or death for my son. He seized every 10 seconds and he would hit, kick, bite, punch, and choke people. I have scars from where he’s attacked me.”

Walker and others traveled to the state Capitol to testify in support of HB 2107, authored by state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville. The bill would authorize the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of cannabis by qualifying patients with a debilitating medical condition. It would allow medical practitioners registered by the Department of Public Safety to recommend — but not prescribe — cannabis to seriously ill patients.

As of today, Vincent has not had an aggressive meltdown in 32 days, down from every day of his life. He’s verbal, thoughtful, and present, as if “someone hit up a light switch,” Walker said.

But here in Texas, Walker and her family were not able to get out of the “cannabis closet,” a term advocates use when they cannot publicly accept they administer or use medical cannabis for fear of criminal prosecution.

The bill was heard before the House Public Health committee on Tuesday night, with some patients, lawyers and doctors waiting as early as 8 a.m. to testify in support. The meeting comes after advocates held a press conference last week to urge committee chairman Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, to schedule a hearing.

HB 2107 would require patients — who, like their doctors, would hold an ID card issued by DPS — to be diagnosed with a condition listed on the bill like cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and PTSD. Doctors would determine what strains and dosage of the plant would be best for each condition.

The bill’s companion, SB 269, authored by Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

This legislation is also an effort to expand the Compassionate Use Act, passed in 2015 for card-holding physicians to prescribe cannabidiol with low amounts of THC, the component that gives patients a high. It only applies to patients who suffer from intractable epilepsy.

But advocates say the law has a “fatal flaw” since it requires doctors to prescribe, instead of recommend, the drug. Doctors would risk their licenses because it is still illegal under federal law.

Walker said that low amounts of THC are not enough for her son, since he uses a nasal spray that contains higher amounts of the component in case of seizure and meltdown emergencies.

“I don’t think I’ve had more families reach out to me and encourage me to work on (something more) than this legislation,” Lucio said. “I’ve had a lot of fiscal notes in my career, and this is the first positive fiscal note I’ve had.”

Dr. Robert Marks, a board certified pain management doctor, said that according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal, medical cannabis laws have seen an average of a 24.8% reduction in opioid overdose deaths.

“Every single person in this room has heard of the opioid epidemic,” Marks said. “We’re desperate. As a physician, I’m desperate. I beg you, on behalf of thousands of cancer patients, at least give those patients access.”

As a testifier told the story of how her epileptic daughter endured three brain surgeries and is currently on a “zombie state” due to a cocktail of six strong pharmaceuticals, Rep. Jason A. Isaac, R-Dripping Springs and bill co-author, could not hold back his tears.

“I will continue to fight for this even if it means I’ll lose elections,” Isaac said.

Glen Mayes, who also traveled from Colorado to the state Capitol, said his epileptic son Orion was losing weight and his ability to swallow, and started deteriorating from the inside out when he took pharmaceuticals. He medicated his son with medical marijuana and spent 30 days without a seizure, something that Valium never did for him, Mayes said.

“I was a former corrections officer for 10 years and I’ve seen what those tranquilizers do to people, and to have my son on it, that rocked me to my core,” Mayes said in an interview.

Aside from parents with epileptic and autistic children, survivors of PTSD, sexual assault and intimate partner violence were also at the hearing.

Lena Oldums said she was raped every week by her abusive partner for four years until she was able to escape with her son. She was diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder, but the numerous psychiatric drugs to help treat the symptoms have not worked for the last three years.

“(They) have had severe side effects for me including not being able to operate a vehicle, headaches, tremors, sensitivity to light, high blood pressure, kidney failure and suicidal thoughts,” Oldums said. “I almost wrecked my car twice with my son in the back seat while on a prescribed pharmaceutical medication.”

Oldums said that cannabis helps her ease the paranoia and anxiety, allowing her to maintain employment. The drug also allows her to be in control of her medication rather than waiting for months for appointments, referrals or pharmacies, she said.

Out of about 70 people who testified, only one opposed the bill. Dr. Richard Heard, a family medicine doctor based in Victoria, Texas, said that severe pain is a “vague deal” since 50 percent of his patients come to his office already under the effects of cannabis asking for more drugs.

“If this is approved for severe pain, 75 percent of my entire clinic is going to be a candidate of this drug,” Heard said. “(Colorado and Washington State) approved medical cannabis eight years before they passed recreational use. We’re four sessions away of passing recreational use. … This drug is addictive.”

Memphis Diangelis, who suffers from cerebral palsy, walked to the podium and said cannabis is the only thing that helped him sleep. He said his voice improved, he can now use his right hand to write, and he can hold a cup of coffee steady enough not to spill it ever since his brother introduced him to cannabis.

“I need to have access to my medicine without being considered a criminal,” he said as he was cheered by those in support of the bill. “If you know me you know I am a law-abiding citizen.”

Chairman Price said “it was evident” that it is a passionate topic before stating that the bill would be left pending. As of Tuesday’s hearing, the bill had 72 co-authors.

Lucio said he internalized every heartfelt testimony with his kids, and that nothing would ever stop him personally from getting his children what they needed to get relief from being seriously ill.

“We have to educate politicians and elected officials about cannabis, about its benefits, and about what children and patients are really going through right now,” Walker said. “I believe that if we do that, the compassion will come through.”

This story was published in the San Antonio Express-News May 4, 2017. 

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