A bill to allow severely ill or disabled patients to use medical cannabis has growing, bipartisan support. But time is running out for passage.
UPDATE: After a big bipartisan push on and off the House floor Friday, Public Health Committee Chair Four Price, R-Amarillo, called an impromptu meeting to vote on HB 2107 just before 5 p.m. The bill passed 7-2, with Price and Representative Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, opposing. The measure now advances to the calendars committee, where Chair Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, can schedule the bill for debate on the House floor. The House has until May 11 to consider the legislation.
ORIGINAL POST: On Thursday, Representative Jason Isaac got a text from one his constituents that moved him to tears.
“Catherine had 32 seizures yesterday,” wrote Terri Carriker of her 15-year-old daughter, who has severe epilepsy. “She took an extra 1500 mgs of one med and 20 of Valium on top of her regular meds.” Carriker included a photo of Catherine curled up on a couch, asleep. “This is the effect of that today.”
Terri says Catherine tried medical marijuana and it reduced the number of seizures she suffers from an average of 8 to 10 a day to none or two. It also has none of the debilitating side-effects of the powerful drugs she takes to control her epilepsy. But pot, of course, is illegal in Texas — something that Carriker and Isaac want to change.
“I’m crying again,” the Dripping Springs Republican texted back.
This week, Carriker came to the Texas Capitol to testify in favor of House Bill 2107, co-authored by Isaac, which would allow the use of medical marijuana by qualifying patients with severe medical conditions, at the recommendation of their doctor. Families, patients and advocates flooded the House Public Health Committee hearing Tuesday night to support the bill, sharing personal stories of how cannabis helped ease suffering from cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), epilepsy, autism and cerebral palsy when pharmaceuticals failed. Of about 70 people who testified, one was against the bill.
“Between the drugs and the seizures, we basically lost the daughter we had,” Carriker said at the hearing.
The number of sponsors jumped from six to 76 in the two days after the hearing, including 29 Republicans. Eight of the 11 committee members signed on to the bill, authored by Representative Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, which gives supporters the majority needed to pass the bill out of committee — if Chair Four Price, R-Amarillo, brings it to a vote.
But Price said he’s undecided, and the clock is ticking before the May 8 deadline to pass House bills out of committee. If he doesn’t call a vote Friday or Saturday, HB 2107 will not survive this session, said Lucio, who pleaded with Price on the House floor Thursday.
The bill’s momentum so far is itself considered a notable achievement by supporters, who acknowledge that the word “marijuana” scares off many conservative lawmakers who worry their constituents — particularly GOP primary voters — will think they support legalizing the drug for recreational use.
This argument was made by Dr. Richard Hurley of the Texas Pain Society, the sole person to testify against HB 2107. There is insufficient evidence that cannabis treats severe pain, the drug is addictive and the bill would bring Texas “four sessions away from recreational use,” he said.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and 17 states, including Texas, allow limited use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
HB 2107 would expand Texas’ 2015 Compassionate Use Act, which lets some doctors prescribe cannabis with extremely low amounts of THC — the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that creates the high — to patients with intractable epilepsy who have found at least two FDA-approved drugs to be ineffective.
Advocates say the current law is too limited, and, for the majority of patients, it has no impact at all.
At the Tuesday House hearing, survivors of war, military sexual assault and domestic violence emotionally discussed how cannabis is the only thing that has helped with their PTSD. Several parents said they became “medical refugees,” moving from Texas to Colorado for legal medical cannabis for their kids, and asked the lawmakers to let them come home.
Dr. Roberts Marks, a pain management doctor in Austin, said Lucio’s bill would address the opioid crisis, citing a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower rate of overdose deaths.
Veteran David Bass, who is 60 percent disabled from chronic pain from his time in the U.S. Army, said he uses cannabis because it’s safer than opioids, but in Texas that makes him a criminal. “I purchase cannabis illegally and use it illegally. But I don’t live my life illegally,” he said.
“Maybe we need to change the law,” Representative Bill Zedler, a far-right Republican from Arlington, who is a co-author, said at the hearing.
Isaac was convinced to support this kind of legislation when he met Carriker in the Capitol last session. At Isaac’s request, Carriker met and convinced his wife as well, who Isaac said used to be vehemently opposed because of the word “marijuana.”
“I just wish people who are opposed to providing more access to medicine for their children could go live with one of these families for 24 hours, because it would change their minds and hearts,” he said in an interview with the Observer.
“I will continue to fight for this even if I lose elections,” Isaac said, “because it’s the right thing to do.”
The companion bill by Senator Jose Menéndez, D-San Antonio, has not been scheduled for a hearing by Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.
On Thursday, Price called the issue an “unfamiliar area” and said he had “concerns with the scope of the bill.” If it were to move forward, it would need to be tightly regulated, he said in an interview. Lucio said he is open to tweaks and concessions.
“I’m not going to stop shooting until the clock runs out,” Lucio told the Observer. If the House bill doesn’t pass in the next few days, “I’m committed all interim to do anything and everything I can to arm myself to make an all out push to get something passed next session.”