Advocates say law is a first step but still leaves out many medical conditions

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law a bill to expand the conditions that would qualify under the state’s medical marijuana program. 

How it will work

The 2015 Texas Compassionate Use Program currently serves only Texas patients with intractable epilepsy. House Bill 3703, filed by Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, expands the Texas Compassionate Use Program to serve patients who have terminal cancer, autism, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), seizure disorders and incurable neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s Disease. The changes go into effect September 1. 

HB 3703 keeps Texas’ current dose restriction at .5 percent THC. THC is the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana. 

The Texas Department of Public Safety will still oversee and regulate the program. To obtain medical cannabis, patients need to have it prescribed to them by a qualified physician.  

The bill passed in the Texas House with only a few members opposing, and its am amended version passed unanimously in the Texas Senate.

The people behind the push for the bill

When the bill cleared the Texas Senate in late May, Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said the legislation was about compassion. 

“This is a success for those patients that we think at this point, medical cannabis, CBD oil, will help,” Campbell said. “It is not about, ‘is this a panacea to help cure the disease process?’ It’s about ‘will this CBD oil help alleviate pain, help alleviate spasticity, help alleviate some of the muscular problems that people can have?’ We don’t have great data, but there’s a lot of case studies and I hope it helps.” 

Campbell sent KXAN a statement on the bill being signed into law:

“More patients will have access to medical treatment through cannabis oil prescribed by a doctor. I am overjoyed for these Texas families who will finally be able to get the care they need. Thank you, Governor Abbott, for your leadership and compassion on this issue!”

Former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek and his wife, Amy Novacek, testified at the Texas Capitol this session, pleading with lawmakers to approve this legislation. Their son, Blake Novacek, was injured during a fraternity hazing incident at the University of Oklahoma. He was left with a traumatic brain injury and has seizures almost daily. They hope low-THC CBD oil can help alleviate his ongoing pain as well as his seizures.

“We are thankful Governor Abbott signed the bill for expansion of Medical Marijuana, now many more Texans will have the opportunity to use this medicine,” Amy said in a statement. “We look forward to this medicine helping our son and giving him some normalcy back to his life and ours.”

A bottle of CBD oil. (KXAN Photo)

Medical marijuana supporters say they hope legislators will consider adding other conditions to the program in the future. Lawmakers said they wanted to see more scientific studies conducted on issues like PTSD before including it as a condition eligible under the program.

“Today is a positive day for Texas and for Texans whose suffering may be relieved through safe, legal access to medical CBD,” Morris Denton, CEO of the dispensary Compassionate Cultivation, said. “And while we would like to see even broader legal access to this life-changing medicine – especially our Veterans and others who are suffering with PTSD – we are encouraged by this positive step our lawmakers, Lt. Governor and Governor are taking to expand the Compassionate Use Program.” 

Other groups echoed a similar sentiment. 

“Cannabis is effective medicine for many patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said in an emailed statement. “HB 3703 represents a positive step toward a functional medical cannabis program, but sadly, it still leaves behind millions of Texas families that could benefit from legal access to the Compassionate Use Program.” 

The people impacted

Austinite Mike Thompson has been advocating for this bill to become law, even making a campaign video for state leaders. Thompson is a four-time cancer survivor, he experiences chronic pain as a result of the 75 surgeries and facial reconstruction he went through during his treatment.

For five years, he was prescribed prescription opioids to deal with the pain, which were pretty easy to access with a $10 copay.

Mike Thompson while he was undergoing cancer treatment. Photo courtesy Mike Thompson.

“After taking them for five straight years, I became addicted, I never overused them, I never did anything illegal to get them, it was just the process of going tot he doctor and not having anything else,” Thompson said.

He’s been able to break the pain pill habit and now uses acupuncture to manage the pain. Out of state, Thompson has used CBD oil and after a great deal of research, he has gotten behind the effort to expand access in Texas.

But despite all Thompson’s efforts, changes in the bill mean that he still won’t be eligible to use medical cannabis in Texas.

“What’s frustrating is, not only as a native Texan but as a four-time cancer survivor, that I still can’t legally have access to it in Texas,” Thompson said. “But we’re gonna get there eventually.”

He is noticing a shift in how seriously lawmakers are taking this issue.

“Seeing the unanimous consent in the Senate and seeing the House pass [HB 3703] with flying colors is a true testament to where we’re going with this, and I’m not talking about full recreational marijuana, I’m talking about medicine, and how we can do it,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he is glad he is no longer stuck on pain meds, but he suspects there are hundreds of thousands of other people who are dealing with a similar problem right now after their cancer diagnosis.

He sees HB 3703 as a first step toward giving more people with chronic illness a chance to see if medical cannabis improves their quality of life.

“I don’t want to suggest its a magic bullet, but we won’t know until we start giving those people the help they need,” he said.

Debbie Tolany with Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism said she was hoping to see Texas increase the allowable level of THC in medical cannabis, citing research which shows that a higher level of THC is better for treating those with autism.

Her son has an autism spectrum disorder and epilepsy. He reacted strongly to anti-seizure medication, making Tolany hesitant about using pharmaceuticals to treat him in the future. When the Compassionate Use Program passed, her son qualified, but it took so long for the program to be created and for licensing and distribution to happen that the medical marijuana didn’t become available to purchase until 2018.

Tolany has been advocating for HB 3703.

“I’m delighted that [Governor Abbott] made good on his word to us when he met privately with us that he would sign that bill,” she said. “It keeps the current program afloat, and as a parent of someone who qualified before this bill passed, I was very concerned that if it did not expand this legislative session, it would fold.”

Tolany credits Senator Campbell for “going to bat” for all the parents of autistic children during the debate over this bill.

While Tolany is happy to see that anyone with autism will now have access to medical cannabis, she is also dismayed those with PTSD will not have access.

Will Tolany and her colleagues be back to advocate on this issue again in the 2021 session?

“Oh my gosh, yes,” she says, “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”

Lingering reservations

There were several other attempts this legislative session to expand the Compassionate Use Act. The most successful of those was House Bill 1365 which would have expanded access to those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and cancer. It also would have established a cannabis therapeutics review board. That bill passed the House but didn’t make it to a vote in the Senate.

During the gubernatorial debates in the fall of 2018, Governor Greg Abbott explained that he started to warm up to expanding access to medical marijuana when parents of children who had epilepsy started talking to him.

“I was moved by what they had to say, I agreed with them and I’m the governor who signed into law the legalization of CBD oil,” Abbott said during the debate.

“More recently, I’ve had discussions with veterans and the parents of autistic children and others who make a very strong compelling case about the legalization of medical marijuana,” Abbott said. “I have seen, however, in other states that authorized that, that abuses take place that raises concerns, so I’m still not convinced yet.”

During debates in the legislative session, some Republican lawmakers expressed caution, fearing that this expansion could clear the way for recreational marijuana use.

To date, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana for medical uses, though the agency says it is willing to work with companies interested in bringing “safe, effective and quality products to market” as well as research on medicinal uses for it. The Farm Bill at the end of last year legalized hemp for industrial purposes. Marijuana is legal for medical purposes in 33 states around the country.