Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill on Tuesday that expands the state’s medical marijuana program, although cannabis activists say the legislation does not go far enough. The measure, House Bill 1535 (HB 1535), was signed by the Republican governor after lawmakers in the Texas Senate made significant changes to the legislation last month.
Under the bill, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and all types of cancer will be eligible to use approved medical cannabis products under the Texas Compassionate Use Program. Under current regulations, only intractable epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ALS, terminal cancer, autism and many seizure disorders are listed as qualifying medical conditions for participation in the program.
HB 1535 also raises the cap on THC in approved medical marijuana formulations to 1 percent by dry weight. Currently, only cannabis medications with a maximum of 0.5 percent THC are permitted under the rules of the program.
An earlier version of the bill that increased the THC limit to 5 percent and also added chronic pain as a qualifying condition was passed by the Texas House of Representatives in April. But when the measure was taken up in the Senate last month, Republican Senator Charles Schwertner introduced a substitute version of the legislation that removed chronic pain as a qualifying condition and rolled back the potency increase to 1 percent.
“As a pharmacist and as a physician, I feel strongly that our limited medical program, with appropriate rules and oversight, is the right path for patients in Texas seeking symptom relief,” Schwertner said when he introduced the changes to the legislation. “I believe the evidence is starting to show that. I believe there needs to be further work, but certainly, the testimony is very strong by patients who are suffering from some of these conditions.”
Activists Say Texas Bill Doesn’t Go Far Enough
Medical marijuana patient advocates, however, say that HB 1535 does not go far enough. A February poll from the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Tribune found that 60 percent of Texans believe that small or large amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legalized. Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said that the final version of the bill is “unreasonably restrictive.”
“While we are glad to see the Compassionate Use Program being expanded, it’s disappointing to see Texas inching forward while other states, like Alabama, for example, are moving forward with real medical cannabis programs,” Fazio said. “It’s doing so little, and we wish [lawmakers] were doing more.”
Medicinal cannabis patient and U.S. Army veteran Viridiana Edwards said she tried numerous pharmaceutical medications to treat the PTSD, chronic pain and migraines she endured after being injured while on duty in Afghanistan. The medications provided only partial relief, and many caused unacceptable side effects, leaving Edwards with seemingly nowhere to turn.
“You kind of just lose hope that you’re going to find something that’s going to help you,” Edwards told the Texas Observer.
When she tried medical marijuana, however, she found relief.
“I remember just this kind of silence within my body,” Edwards said of the experience. “The pain, the anxiety, just so many things that I was going through on a daily basis, were just gone.”
Since that time, she has been an active advocate for increasing access to medicinal cannabis in Texas, which has one of the most restrictive medical marijuana programs in the nation. And while she is happy that PTSD was added to the state’s list of qualifying conditions, she is frustrated by the restrictions and the slow pace of reform.
“When I raised my hand in Fort Bliss, Texas, saying that I would serve my country, I don’t remember picking and choosing who I would serve and protect,” she said.
Although she was unhappy with the changes made to the bill in the Senate, HB 1535 sponsor Representative Stephanie Klick asked her colleagues in the House to accept the version passed in the upper house to avoid sending the measure to a conference committee. The Senate’s version was passed in the House on May 28, leading to Abbott’s approval of the measure on Tuesday. HB 1535 goes into effect on September 1.