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Texas House passes bill to vastly expand access to medical cannabis

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The Texas House advanced a bill Monday that would expand the list of debilitating conditions that allow Texans to legally use medical cannabis.

House Bill 1365 would add Alzheimer’s, Crohn’s disease, muscular dystrophy, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and a bevy of other illnesses to an existing state program that currently applies only to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements.

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The bill would also increase from three to 12 the number of dispensaries the Texas Department of Public Safety can authorize to begin growing and distributing the product and would authorize the implementation of cannabis testing facilities to analyze the content, safety and potency of medical cannabis.

After a relatively short debate, the lower chamber gave preliminary approval to Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III‘s bill in a 121-23 vote. (Update: The House gave the measure final approval May 7.) But the legislation still faces major hurdles in the more conservative Texas Senate before it can become law.

“Today, I don’t just stand here as a member of this body but as a voice for thousands of people in this state that are too sick to function or that live in constant, debilitating pain,” Lucio, D-Brownsville, told other lawmakers.

The Compassionate Use Act, signed into law in 2015, legalized products containing high levels of CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana, and low levels of THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, for Texans with intractable epilepsy whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Patients also must be permanent state residents and get approval from two specialized neurologists listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas. While Lucio’s bill strikes the residency requirement, state Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, successfully tacked on an amendment Monday saying those wanting to try the medicine needed approval of one neurologist from the registry and a second physician who must be licensed in the state of Texas and have “adequate medical knowledge” in order to render a second opinion.

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Lucio’s bill is one of two that aim to expand the scope of the narrow Compassionate Use Act and have gained traction this legislative session. Another measure by Fort Worth Republican Stephanie Klick, an author of the 2015 program, is scheduled for debate in the Texas House later in the week.

Texas is one of several states where marijuana is still illegal, and the state remains reluctant to move forward on legislation that would legalize its recreational use. More than 30 states allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas is one of nearly a dozen states that only allow for “low THC, high CBD” products for medical situations in limited circumstances.

Lucio filed a similar medical expansion bill during the 2017 session. The measure attracted nearly 80 co-sponsors — including some of the chamber’s more hardline conservatives — but was never scheduled for a floor vote.

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HB 1365 will still need a final stamp of approval in the House before it can head to the Senate for consideration.

But despite its overwhelming support in the Texas House, it’s less clear where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who has already drawn a line in the sand on a bill to lessen the criminal penalties for Texans found with small amounts of marijuana — stands on expanding the existing state medical program.

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Two medical expansion bills in the upper chamber by state Sens. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, and José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, have yet to get a committee hearing. And in a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, Patrick spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor “remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

To be clear, Lucio is aware of the pushback his bill might receive in the Senate.

“We’re in a good place right now, but the fight is far from over,” he said at a press conference Friday after learning his bill had been set for a floor debate. “If we get this through the House, we have a whole other battle in the Senate.”

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But expanding the Compassionate Use Act has drawn the support of some politically powerful players since the last legislative session. In March, a new group lobbying for medical marijuana, Texans for Expanded Access to Medical Marijuana, emerged and has players with some serious clout in the Capitol — including Allen Blakemore, a top political consultant for Patrick.

The Republican Party of Texas also approved a plank last year asking the Legislature to “improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients,” and according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 26% of the state’s registered voters would legalize marijuana for only medical purposes.

“It’s not everyday I get to carry a comprehensive bill that is a platform issue for both the Democratic and Republican parties,” Lucio told The Texas Tribune on Monday before debate on his bill. “That helps, and it’s a great talking point when I can tell members there’s no political risk for them to support this bill.”

Several marijuana advocacy groups praised the passage of Lucio’s bill.

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“Texans overwhelmingly support the expansion of medical cannabis, and it’s encouraging that lawmakers have championed bills that make safety the priority, emphasize the need for scientific research, insist on the importance of the doctor-patient relationship, and create high industry guardrails to ensure quality and consistency for patients,” said Brian Sweany, a member of TEAMM’s leadership.

Disclosure: Allen Blakemore and the University of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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