AUSTIN — Marijuana reform advocates say there was unprecedented, bipartisan support for their efforts in this year’s legislative session, but it still wasn’t enough to change state law.
House Bill 2107, authored by state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, would have given safe access to medical cannabis for qualifying patients with certain debilitating medical conditions under strict conditions listed in the bill. Although it earned 77 Democratic and Republican co-authors after its committee hearing, the bill never made it to the House floor for a vote.
“We are going to see a lot more families leave the state of Texas over the next 18 months with children who have neurological disorders. They will move to other states where they can get treatment,” said Rep. Jason Isaac, a Republican from Dripping Springs and one of the co-authors.
Amy Lou Fawell, a member of Texas Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, or MAMMA, said multiple parents across the state worked tirelessly to change “hearts and minds” at the Texas Capitol, and were disappointed that the bill wasn’t scheduled for a House debate before the deadline.
“A lot of the mothers were conservative mothers themselves. We all needed to change our hearts and minds, but when you have a sick kid, it goes a little faster,” Fawell said. “We were willing to be open about this. We’re proud and crushed at the same time because we know historic progress was done at the Capitol.”
The bill’s Senate companion, Senate Bill 269, authored by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, was never even scheduled for a committee hearing.
Current law limited
Texas passed the Compassionate Use Act in 2015, which allows epileptic patients to use cannabidiol with low amounts of THC, the plant component that gives marijuana users a high, only when federally approved drugs fail. But advocates say the program is too limited and that patients with cancer, autism and HIV, to name a few, would benefit from the program as well. The law in place is also flawed, advocates say, because it directs doctors to prescribe the strict CBD:THC ratio, which puts doctors at risk of losing their licenses since the drug is still illegal under federal law. Instead, doctors should recommend its use, not prescribe, say lawmakers who sponsored the legislation.
HB 2107 would have allowed the use of cannabidiol and other derivatives with higher levels of THC as well as marijuana, but only for seriously ill patients with specified illnesses registered with a compassionate-use registry and only when recommended by licensed physicians registered with the Department of Public Safety, as regulated by the proposed changes. Possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana would have been legal for these patients; in some instances, more would have been allowed.
Isaac said the legislation’s failure shows there is still a lot of work to be done on educating lawmakers about cannabidiol. Because it’s derived from the marijuana plant, Isaac said, the medical derivative suffers from the same public stigma as the recreational drug.
“It’s not legalization, it’s not recreational, it’s for expanding the Texas Compassionate Use Program to help people with more neurological disorders beyond intractable epilepsy,” Isaac said. “To help children with autism, to help adults with autism that have found relief in their seizures and their brain activity by taking something that’s got a higher level of cannabidiol.”
Isaac said some of his constituents already use the drug illegally because the legal option — strong federally approved opioids — put their autistic and epileptic children in a vegetative state, they say.
Fawell said advocates shared with lawmakers the viral video published by Mark Zartler, showing how treatment with vaporized marijuana, while illegal, helped his 17-year-old daughter Kara Zartler, who previously had engaged in self-injurious behavior because of her severe autism.
While the bills didn’t pass, Fawell noted that measures allowing for more cannabis use according to patient needs have never come this far and the momentum will be used as a jumping start for 2019.
Like the medical marijuana measure, a bill that would have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana failed but went further than they had in previous sessions.
House Bill 81, authored by Criminal Jurisprudence Committee chairman Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would have dramatically reduced criminal penalties for marijuana possession by eliminating any jail time or threat of arrest for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. The offense would have been punishable with a fine of $250. The offense would not have generated a criminal record, but the drug would still be illegal and law enforcement would still have seized it.
Under the Texas Controlled Substances Act of the Health and Safety Code currently in effect, a person possessing 2 ounces or less of marijuana commits a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and up to six months in jail. In 2015, 61,748 people were arrested for marijuana possession, according to the most recent data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
HB 81 made it through the committee process and was scheduled for a vote, but lawmakers did not get to it before the midnight deadline in the House.
Heather Fazio, political director for Marijuana Policy Project, said thousands of Texans will be arrested from today until the next legislative session, marked for life with criminal records while wasting resources in the criminal justice system. But, Fazio pointed out, the bill made it to the House calendar this time. Last session, it never made it out of committee.
“The stakes are high,” Fazio said. “We’re talking about people’s lives, good government policy and righting the wrong that has been on the books for way too long.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana. A total of 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico allow for comprehensive medical marijuana and cannabis programs.
Protecting parental rights
At later stages of the session, Isaac tried to amend language to House Bill 7, a Child Protective Services bill, to protect parental rights if they administered THC products to their child in the child’s best interest. However, Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, author of the 2015 Compassionate Use Act, added an amendment to protect only those parents administering low-THC cannabis valid under current law. The amendment also said Isaac’s language would be valid only if HB 2107 passed.
“Members read the entire amendment and said, ‘This is about cannabis, this is about legalization,’” Isaac said. “There is still stigmatism by people that create fear and uncertainty when that shouldn’t be the case.”
In the meantime, Fawell said, supporters will continue to push research efforts during the interim to earn support from as many lawmakers as they can.
“After seeing our kids and our families and seeing the Zartler video, how could they not vote for us? How could it not have happened?” Fawell wondered.
This article was published in the San Antonio Express-News June 10, 2017.