If you think Texas should maintain its strict prohibitions against marijuana, you have plenty to cheer about in the wake of the recently concluded legislative session.
That’s because state lawmakers didn’t come close this year to putting Texas on a path to join what has been a growing legalization movement nationally.
A bill aimed at expanding the state’s limited medical marijuana program by a small amount won approval, but not before the measure was diluted from an earlier version that some marijuana advocates already considered too narrow.
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It nonetheless marked their biggest victory. Many other cannabis-related efforts — aimed variously at legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use, lowering penalties for low-volume possession to the equivalent of a traffic ticket, or otherwise loosening the state’s restrictions on the plant and its components — stalled before the finish line or never gained traction to begin with in the GOP-controlled Legislature.
Morris Denton, CEO of medical marijuana company Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation, said the medical marijuana measure approved by lawmakers — House Bill 1535 — isn’t significant enough to constitute “meaningful expansion” of the state’s tightly regulated medical program. Still, he said, it’s better than no expansion at all.
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“We are happy for forward progress, but we are disappointed,” Denton said. “It’s not going to dramatically increase the number of patients, and a lot of people will be left behind” who could benefit from medical marijuana.
But opponents of loosening the state’s restrictions view it as a victory that the Legislature didn’t do more to make marijuana more widely available — for medical purposes or otherwise — or to reduce penalties for possession. They’ve said that doing so will fuel increases in drug-related problems and other societal ills.
Marijuana advocates dispute the assertion, saying lowering the prohibitions will bring fairness to the criminal justice system and provide Texans with access to a plant with a variety of health benefits. But they weren’t able to break through this year amid a legislative session that came to be dominated by other hot-button social issues — such as abortion restrictions and voting regulations — considered more important to the conservative base of the Republican Party.
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“I think (lawmakers) still have enough common sense to know legalization isn’t what we want for the state of Texas,” said Cindi Castilla, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, a conservative group that opposed some of the marijuana-related bills.
Castilla, speaking to the American-Statesman during the session’s waning days when a number of the measures had already died or were headed for failure, said she is against an expansive medical marijuana program in Texas.
“Medical marijuana always leads to legalization,” she said. “For all intents and purposes, it means it’s coming — it’s the first step.”
Marijuana supporters hopeful despite Texas’ lack of progress
Such views are increasingly in the minority, however, even among Texas Republicans, according to recent polling. The trend is providing marijuana advocates with hope for the future despite their lack of progress this year.
A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted in February found that 19% of respondents who identified as Republican said marijuana possession shouldn’t be legal under any circumstances, compared with 39% about a decade ago. Only 5% of respondents who identified as Democrats in the recent poll said it shouldn’t be legal under any circumstances.
In addition, a number of cannabis-related bills garnered bipartisan support this session and made it further in the legislative process than ever before, even if they ultimately fell short.
“Anybody who is defending continued prohibition, I think they have to be feeling the pressure of public opinion shifting,” said Heather Fazio, director of the pro-marijuana organization Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “Momentum continues to build toward marijuana law reforms” in Texas despite the lack of wins this year.
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In a sign of that optimism, Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation said this week that it is near a goal of raising $21 million in new funding from its existing investors and from AFI Capital Partners, a California-based firm that backs cannabis-related ventures.
Denton said the money will be used partly for operational purposes, because his company has yet to turn a profit in its four years of existence in the state’s limited and highly regulated medical marijuana program, which is called the Compassionate Use Program.
“Until there is a meaningful expansion (of the program), it will be hard to carve out a profitable business,” he said. But “our investors are very patient, and they have taken a long-term view of this market. We believe, at some point in time, our Legislature will see and understand and embrace the benefits of this medicine” for Texans.
The time isn’t now, however. The lack of action by lawmakers this session ensures that Texas will remain a prominent holdout when it comes to marijuana legalization or decriminalization, at least until the Legislature reconvenes in 2023.
Thirty-seven other states — including all four bordering Texas — have made marijuana broadly legal either for adult recreational uses or for medical purposes, a trend that has accelerated in the past few years as public opinion has shifted nationally.
Weighing medical marijuana benefits
Denton said he’s particularly distressed in the wake of the recent legislative session that chronic pain will continue to be left off the list of ailments that make patients eligible for the restrictive Texas program. Medical marijuana could help people kick highly addictive opioids that are routinely prescribed for chronic pain, he said.
The House version of HB 1535 would have added chronic pain to the relatively short list of conditions that enable Texans to access the medical marijuana produced in the state, along with some other new additions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and all types of cancer. But the Senate eliminated chronic pain, and its version of the bill won out and is awaiting the signature of Gov. Greg Abbott.
Other changes by the Senate included drastically reducing the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC, the chemical that induces a high — allowed in medical marijuana products in Texas, compared with the version approved by the House.
Currently, products available under the state’s medical marijuana program can contain no more than 0.5% THC by weight. The version of HB 1535 approved by the House would have increased the amount to 5%, but the Senate cut it to 1%.
Any of those amounts are considered extremely small by pot industry standards.
As of April, only about 5,400 patients had registered to participate in the Texas program. Denton said it’s unclear how many might opt to register as a result of the changes allowed under HB 1535, but said he doesn’t think it will be a big number.
“It is not going to unlock the market and result in a flood of patients,” he said. “There are a lot of people who will look at (the still limited program) and say, ‘I’m going to go another route.’ “
Meanwhile, cannabis advocates scored something of a victory this session when a measure failed that would have spelled out that a chemical compound called Delta-8 THC is illegal under Texas law.
Delta-8 THC, which is manufactured from hemp, is less potent than the form of THC found in marijuana. But products infused with it have proliferated statewide over the past year at many retailers that sell cannabidiol, or CBD, a nonpsychoactive hemp attract that has a multitude of perceived health benefits.
The impact of the win is unclear, however. The Texas Department of State Health Services already has asserted that Delta-8 THC is a controlled substance under existing state regulations.