Buzzkill Medical Marijuana Bill Heads to Governor's Desk

Last night an overwhelming majority of Texas House members voted to legalize a marijuana-derived compound to treat patients suffering from uncontrollable seizures. To be sure, the passage of SB 339, which cleared the Senate earlier this month and now heads to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk, is a historic moment for the Lone Star State. It's the first time a medical marijuana bill of any kind has made it out of both chambers of the notoriously conservative Texas Legislature and a sign, marijuana reformers say, that lawmakers here are finally opening up to pot reform.

Too bad the bill probably won't do much good, even for the very limited number of patients it's intended to help, according to advocates with the Marijuana Policy Project, a national marijuana reform group that descended upon Texas this session hoping to change pot policy here.

SB 339, authored by Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler), allows patients with uncontrollable seizures to use marijuana extracts containing high levels of cannabidiol, a compound in cannabis that many believe is effective in treating rare and serious forms of epilepsy. The medical marijuana extracts would contain little to no THC, the stuff in pot that actually gets you high.

The MPP and other marijuana reform activists had pushed for, among other things, a so-called “whole plant” medical marijuana law, similar to that in California, in which patients experiencing anything from post-traumatic stress disorder to epilepsy would have access to anything from a joint to high-CBD extracts.

But the main problem with SB 339, according to Heather Fazio, MPP's Texas political director, hinges on language in the bill that requires doctors to “prescribe” CBD compounds for treating patients with seizures.

Despite the fact that 19 states and the District of Columbia already have comprehensive medical marijuana laws on the books (and four other states have already legalized recreational use of the plant), the federal Drug Enforcement Administration still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug with “no currently accepted medical use,” on par with heroin or LSD.

That presents doctors in medical marijuana states with the tricky issue of how to approve patients without running afoul of federal law and risking criminal sanctions (not to mention the possibility of losing their DEA license to prescribe other controlled substances). So to wiggle around federal prohibition, other state laws only require that doctors “recommend” medical marijuana or “certify” patients, which the feds have acknowledged is First Amendment protected activity, Fazio says.

And, for whatever reason, Texas lawmakers insisted on language in SB 339 that requires doctors to “prescribe” medical marijuana compounds for qualifying patients. “We haven't really had a good answer as to why they wanted that 'prescribe' language in there,” Fazio told the Press. “They said their legal advisers told them it's just fine...That's disappointing, because they seem to be getting bad legal advice.” Fazio and others worry doctors simply won't risk prescribing CBD compounds, even if it's legal in Texas, because doing so could put their lives and careers in jeopardy.

Still, Fazio praised the fact that lawmakers sent any kind of medical marijuana bill to the governor's desk. “It tells us they do want to help patients, that they do at least acknowledge that cannabis is medicine, which is an incredibly significant step for Texas,” she says. Another significant, if only symbolic, victory for marijuana reformers this session was when a bill by GOP Rep. David Simpson effectively ending marijuana prohibition in Texas sailed out of a House committee with a decisive 5-2 vote (the bill later died when the full House declined to take it up for consideration before its Friday deadline to move bills).

Fazio says MPP's priority for the rest of the legislative session remains passing some sort of measure that reduces criminal penalties for simple pot possession, like the now-dead bill by Rep. Joe Moody that would have removed the threat of arrest, jail time, and criminal record for anyone caught holding up to an ounce of pot and replaced criminal possession with a simple $250 civil fine. “We have to stop putting people in jail over a plant,” Fazio says. “There are 140,000 Texans arrested and put into the system unnecessarily each year for simple possession... We have to stop wasting time and valuable resources arresting people for possessing a plant.” 

Fazio says MPP is hoping to find a bill that's still moving through the legislature to which it can attach an amendment lowering criminal penalties for pot possession. “There's definitely work to be done in these final weeks," she says. "There are still plenty of bills moving, one of which might offer us a vehicle."
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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas