In 2015, Texas joined a handful of other states in adopting an approach to medical cannabis that legalizes it… but just barely. Still intact today, the Texas Compassionate Use Act only allows for the legal use of cannabis oil with trace amounts of THC. To qualify, patients must have severe epilepsy and receive approval from two specialists who believe that cannabis is a worthwhile treatment, not just on its own merits, but compared to other options. Patients may not grow their own, and smokable forms of cannabis are illegal for any use. It’s not uncommon to see Texas described as having no medical program, because its program is so narrow that it’s nearly invisible.
But with a new year and a new legislative session, there is hope that Texas might expand its program into something that provides substantially broader access. As the largest Southern, conservative state, Texas opening the door to more cannabis use could have a catalyzing effect on states with similar low-THC or CBD-only laws, which also exist in Mississippi, Alabama, Indiana and a host of other, mostly Southern, states.
Leading the charge for medical marijuana in Texas is State Senator Jose Menendez. He has introduced legislation that would grow the state’s list of eligible conditions to include cancer, HIV/ AIDS, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe chronic pain, nausea and many other conditions. Chronic pain is a key addition — the global market for treating chronic pain was nearly $70 billion in 2017, and treating pain is the primary function of opioid medications. Importantly, a handful of studies have found that opioid use shrinks in states with legal medical cannabis.
“We’ve seen nothing but mounting momentum for reform,” says Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, a leading advocacy group in the push to expand Texas’s medical program.
One major source of Fazio’s optimism is that Republicans are coming around to the idea of opening up the state’s medical program. The Texas GOP’s platform now calls on the state legislature “to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients.” The platform also recommends that the penalty for possession of small amounts of cannabis be reduced to a $100 fine with no jail time, and even calls on the federal government to move cannabis from Schedule I (for drugs with a high capacity for abuse and no medical benefit) to Schedule II (potentially abusive drugs that may have medical benefits).
As for the Texas Democratic Party, which controls roughly 40 percent of the state’s House and Senate, they are on board for full legalization. The party platform calls for a host of reforms, including legalization for recreational and medical use, economic empowerment for communities most affected by the War on Drugs, employment protections for cannabis users, and the immediate release and expungement of criminal records for anyone convicted of cannabis possession.
Beyond party support, individual legislators are increasingly coming out for reform and have progress to build on from the previous session. For example, a 2017 bill that would have expanded the list of eligible conditions for a medical cannabis recommendation attracted 78 cosponsors, including 28 Republicans. The bill ran out of time in the 2017 session and was never scheduled for a floor vote. The Texas legislature, which only meets in odd-numbered years, may continue this push in the current session with Menendez’s bill or another piece of cannabis-focused legislation.
In addition to the movement toward opening up who can legally take medical cannabis, there also seems to be a broad base for criminal justice reform. In addition to support from both party establishments, Gov. Greg Abbott has signaled he’s behind the idea of reducing penalties for cannabis possession. “One thing I don’t want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of a small amount of marijuana,” Abbott said in 2018.
Abbott has generally been skeptical of cannabis reform, and he holds veto power over any legislation that reaches his desk, so any public softening on his part has obvious significance. Fazio expressed optimism that he ultimately would not block progressive cannabis legislation.
“He has made clear that advocates are making compelling arguments to him,” she said. “I don’t think the governor will stand in the way if we have meaningful legislation pass [both state houses].”
Meanwhile, the people of Texas are well ahead of their legislators on this issue. 84 percent of the state supports medical cannabis and 53 percent approve of some form of recreational weed, according to a June 2018 poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. Austin’s annual South by Southwest festival also had a cannabis track this year.
While Texas politicians have been quite cautious around cannabis, the people they represent are ready to see more legal uses for the plant. With momentum toward reform as strong as it has ever been, this may be the year the people get their wish.
TELL US, what’s your state’s marijuana policy?
Originally published in Issue 36 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE