Marijuana

AUSTIN — Hope for expanding medical-marijuana access and creating a civil penalty for possession of small amounts of the substance aren’t quite snuffed out in the Texas Capitol, despite setbacks.

On Wednesday, Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said she’d identified two still-viable bills to which a pair of now-defunct proposals could be grafted as amendments before lawmakers go home from the legislative session that ends May 29.

The bills that gained the most traction of any marijuana-related proposals this session hit deadlines before the full House could vote on them.

“It stings,” Fazio said. “Last week was really hard for all of us.”

While not legalizing possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, House Bill 81 would reduce penalties for low-level possession.

The offense would carry no arrest, jail time or criminal record if the bill were approved. 

Punishment would be a fine of up to $250.

House Bill 2107, by state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, would make the 2015 Compassionate Use Act more inclusive, adding to the number of qualifying conditions for which use is legal and lifting a cap on THC limits.

The Sheriffs’ Association of Texas opposed both.

“We already have a very clear medical-marijuana bill,” said Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback. “Marijuana is still very much a gateway drug and leads to a life of despair and destitution.”

Still, given that 77 of the House’s 150 members signed on as authors or co-authors to the medical-marijuana bill, it would have almost certainly passed had it not reached the Calendars Committee an hour and a half too late to be scheduled for vote on the floor of the House.  

“We didn’t move the ball but in a symbolic sense that’s a huge victory,” said John Baucum, chairman of the Texas Young Republicans Federation.

Lucio’s bill would address what critics say are flaws in the Compassionate Use Act of 2015, which was created to give patients access to “low-THC cannabis.”

The legislation authorized “dispensing organizations” to cultivate, process and distribute cannabis.

But current law applies only to permanent Texas residents with intractable epilepsy.

And there’s a requirement that physicians write a prescription for the use of cannabis.

Prescribing a drug that’s on the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-restricted list could put doctors at risk.

Lucio’s bill would allow doctors to “recommend” marijuana.

“It’s technically not a prescription,” Fazio said. “Recommendations are protected free speech.”

Explaining his bill to Public Health Committee members, Lucio said that he’d “had more people reach out,” to him on the proposal than on any other he’d authored in six terms.

Poignant testimony in committee “helped take the conversation out of the abstract and really personalized it,” Baucum said. 

Cherie Rineker, a cancer patient with what she said is “incurable” multiple myeloma, testified that she had traveled to Colorado where she legally used marijuana.

It eased the nausea, insomnia and other symptoms she experienced from the opioids that doctors prescribed for her deep-bone pain.

“While I lived in Colorado I never once reached for opioids,” Rineker said. “There’s no moral high ground in denying patients medical marijuana.”

As for the civil-penalty bill, it too gained a multiple authors and co-authors: 40 in all. 

Cherokee County District Attorney Elmer Beckworth signed up in opposition to the measure when it was in committee.

Despite his objections to the civil-penalty proposal, Beckworth said in a telephone interview that marijuana does not lead to the “dire consequences,” associated with many other controlled substances. 

Fazio declined to identify the bills she was hoping to amend with the marijuana proposals, saying only, that she will “know by next week,” if the effort would strike a spark.

John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jaustin@cnhi.com.

This Week's Circulars