Only Texans with intractable epilepsy can currently use medical cannabis. As new legislation heading toward the governor’s desk adds a few more conditions to the list, advocates wish lawmakers had gone further and Republicans fret about a "slippery slope."
It wasn’t the wide-ranging medical cannabis bill that Democrats and marijuana advocates wanted. But patients with terminal cancer, autism, neurodegenerative diseases and a few other conditions will likely soon be able to legally use low-THC medical cannabis after the Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday to expand the Compassionate Use Act.
The 2015 law legalized use of medical cannabis with a 0.5 percent THC level for people with intractable epilepsy who get approval from two physicians. Texas is among more than 30 states that allow medical cannabis, though it has one of the most restrictive programs in the country. House Bill 3703, sponsored by state Senator Donna Campbell, a Republican from New Braunfels who practices as an emergency room physician, slightly expands the list of qualifying medical conditions and requires the approval of one physician instead of two. After the bill’s author, state Representative Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, concurs with the Senate’s changes, the proposal will head to Governor Greg Abbott’s desk. The bill will become law on September 1 unless Abbott vetoes it.
The original version of HB 3703, which sailed through the House with only 10 opposing votes, was narrower. It added any kind of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and spasticity to the list of eligible conditions. But the bill was broadened in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, an unexpected move for the more conservative chamber. That the bill advanced to the Senate floor was another victory, since Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has vehemently opposed marijuana reform and said he’s “wary” of even expanding medical use. A wider-ranging bill by Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio III would have encompassed post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions, but it wasn’t given a Senate committee hearing. HB 3703 leaves out conditions like PTSD.
State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville — the father of Representative Lucio — took issue with that omission during the floor debate Wednesday, pointing to veterans’ widespread use of medical cannabis for PTSD. He also cited the group’s high suicide risk. “Don’t you think veterans deserve life-saving relief that could be provided to them in this bill?” he asked Campbell. She said there wasn’t sufficient research to suggest that medical cannabis can treat PTSD.
State Senator José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, pointed out that research on cannabis is hard to find in the United States because the federal government classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, a category indicating a high potential for abuse and “no current medical use.” That classification raises the standards for government approval to conduct research.
Campbell removed a provision in the original bill calling for a medical cannabis research program. “I do not feel the state needs to pick up and support dollars for research in this at this time,” she said, adding that pharmaceutical companies can fund their own studies.
Menéndez filed his own medical cannabis bill, which never got a Senate committee hearing. He wasn’t satisfied by HB 3703, he said, but he refrained from offering any amendments because he knew the bill before the senators was the one most likely to pass. “Many times we can’t let perfect get in the way of good,” he said.
State Senator Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, raised concerns about the bill’s mention of terminal cancer, which Campbell said is meant to cover issues such as cancer-related pain or severe nausea from bowel obstruction. Birdwell said he didn’t want to see the bill “metastasize into a pain management bill.”
He also said he feared the bill would pave the way for marijuana legalization. When Campbell acknowledged worries that the bill was a “slippery slope,” Birdwell cut in and said, “I’m concerned it’s a cliff, senator.” He later added: “You’re the first doctor to tell me this is the right thing to do … and I’ve seen a lot of doctors in my last 18 years, doc.”
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said the organization was grateful that the bill passed but had hoped for a bigger fix to the Compassionate Use Act. Fazio added that she was frustrated by the “fear-mongering” rhetoric in the Senate debate.
“We’ve heard from those who oppose any kind of reform that they would prefer to see patients deprived access to medicine than actually have to talk about and consider the repeal of prohibition entirely, which a majority of Texans favor,” Fazio said, referring to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll which found that 53 percent of Texans support legalizing pot in small amounts or any amount. “This kind of policy should have been one that passed without need for much conversation because of how limited it is. We are still disappointed and kind of in dismay that the Legislature continues to fail the most sick Texans.”