AUSTIN — A Texas Senate committee Monday approved a bill expanding Texas’ medical marijuana program to include all forms of PTSD and cancer, though the proposal underwent significant changes before getting sent to the full Senate.
After soaring through the House with bipartisan support, the proposal appeared to be doomed as it headed into the final week of the session without a scheduled Senate hearing. Then, after a brief Senate recess as it headed into the evening, the Committee on State Affairs brought up the proposal from Fort Worth Republican Rep. Stephanie Klick and voted it out 8-0.
However, the bill didn’t get referred to the full Senate unscathed. As originally filed, the bill proposed an increase on the THC limit from .5% to 5%, but a committee substitute from Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, dropped the cap back down to 1%.
The substitute also notably opted to cut one group of Texans who were originally included in the proposed expansion: People experiencing chronic pain that would otherwise be treated with an opioid. Texans with PTSD and all forms of cancer are still included and would be added to the state’s medical use program if passed and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.
The bill still needs passage from the full Senate, and then would need the House to agree to the changes before going to the governor.
Morris Denton, CEO of medical cannabis company Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation, considered himself both grateful for the committee’s action on the bill and disappointed in the major changes.
“We’re pleased that there’s still forward progress with the bill,” Denton said. “Obviously, as big believers in the medicine that this plant can create, we’re disappointed to see they left out the millions of Texans suffering from chronic pain whose only real avenues are opioids, over-the-counter pain medicine or being forced to go to the illegal market in order to self medicate.”
Morris said removing Texans with chronic pain from the proposal was a “step in the wrong direction,” but called the overall progress a good thing.
Medical marijuana advocates are pleased with some of the provisions that remain in the bill heading to the full Senate and the fact that it is still alive, especially with the Senate facing a Wednesday deadline for considering bills.
Schwertner said the substitute came with input from fellow lawmakers on how aggressive the state should be in taking the next step in expansion.
“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. “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.”
One provision that remains in the bill would create a medical cannabis research program under the Texas Health Human Services.
As originally filed, Klick’s proposal included PTSD, though only for veterans. Then dozens of Texans turned out in April for a hearing in the House’s Public Health committee, where many questioned when their PTSD will qualify them under the program.
“My PTSD is no different than a firefighter or a police officer who has PTSD, or a person who was abused or sexually assaulted,” said David Bass, a 25-year veteran, during a public hearing. “Their symptoms and experiences are the same as mine.”
Klick then tacked on an amendment to include all forms of PTSD three weeks later.
Aside from excluding patients with chronic pain, Denton noted that there is no real limit on the amount of THC a doctor can prescribe under this bill, which caps THC levels based on percentage rather than milligrams.
During the public hearing in the House, several Texans highlighted a similar concern, explaining that the current .5% THC restriction only forces them to buy and ingest more products, such as carrier oil, in order to meet the dosage they were prescribed. While there is still a slight THC bump by percentage in the committee substitute, Denton said it still doesn’t solve the problem.
“It’s like saying instead of you just taking two Advils for your headache, you have to take 20 to address your headache,” Denton said. “Imagine if they thought about ibuprofen in the same way they think about THC.”
Denton pointed to a recent law passed in Alabama, which initially caps daily dosages at 50 milligrams.
“That’s the way you limit it,” Denton said. “Imposing a percent by weight threshold actually creates more harm than it does good.
Denton said as a business that serves patients throughout the state, they don’t believe in moral victories, adding that people with chronic pain deserve to qualify under this program just as much as those who are currently included.
He also said doctors should not be limited by lawmakers on how to prescribe any medicine, including medical marijuana.
“It should be a medical program that is driven by the medical community, which means that the doctor should be in the driver’s seat, not the legislator,” Denton said.
Texas’ compassionate use program was created in 2015, though its narrow focus only included patients with intractable epilepsy. Two years ago, another bill from Klick expanded the program to include people with seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis and terminal cancer among other qualifying conditions.
Klick’s latest expansion bill must receive a vote from the Senate by the Wednesday deadline.