Generic state capitol legislation

The Texas Capitol is viewed from its south side in Austin.

Changing how Texas regulates marijuana is a hot topic as the 86th Legislature begins its legislative session, but for some Texans, the issue is a matter of health more than anything else.

“Doctors, not politicians, should determine what is best for Texas patients,” said State Sen. José Menéndez, who authored a bill that would expand access to medical cannabis. “Studies have proven that cannabis is a legitimate medicine that can help a variety of Texans, including individuals suffering from opioid addiction, veterans coping with PTSD, cancer patients and people on the autism spectrum.”

Texas lawmakers returned to Austin on Tuesday and, during the current session, will consider multiple cannabis-related proposals, including one that would decriminalize minor marijuana possession. The bill from Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat, will ask lawmakers to consider whether more Texans with serious illnesses can use drugs made with some of the same components in cannabis.

In 2015, lawmakers took the groundbreaking step to allow such drugs to be legally used in Texas but only under stringent guidelines. The law, known as the Compassionate Use Act, permits Texas residents with intractable epilepsy to use the drugs, but only after they’ve tried two drugs approved by the Federal Drug Administration and found them ineffective. Patients with intractable epilepsy also have to be approved by two state-approved neurologists before getting a prescription.

Crossroads residents with intractable epilepsy who are hoping for relief through such drugs have to go to other parts of the state to get a prescription. About 50 physicians are registered on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas, and almost all of them practice in major Texas cities, like Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Austin and Houston. Organizations that dispense the drugs in question are numbered even fewer, with three in the entire state.

For kids with epilepsy, the Compassionate Use Act has provided crucial relief, said Sindi Rosales, the CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of Central and South Texas.

“If other medical conditions respond as wonderfully (to medical cannabis) as our people with epilepsy have, wow,” Rosales said. “How wonderful would that be?”

Rosales said the Epilepsy Foundation advocated for the 2015 law. This legislative session, the group is focused on passing Sam’s Law, which would mandate that educators in Texas public schools be trained in seizure recognition and seizure first aid.

Expanding access to medical marijuana isn’t a sure bet, however, with one of the most vocal opposing voices to the move coming from the Crossroads. Jackson County Sheriff Andy “A.J.” Louderback has repeatedly criticized proposals that would decriminalize marijuana or increase its access for medical use.

Louderback has argued that making medical cannabis more accessible could eventually open the gates to decriminalizing the drug for recreational use.

Hunter White, spokesman for Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, said that despite some critics of expanding the Compassionate Use Act, a bill like Menéndez’s has a good chance of passing in the Texas House because of widespread support.

“Texas really needs to get into compliance,” White said. “It’s basically an island surrounded by states with better programs” for using medical cannabis to treat illnesses, he said.

Ciara McCarthy covers local government for the Victoria Advocate as a Report for America corps member. You can reach her at cmccarthy@vicad.com or at 580-6597 or on Twitter at @mccarthy_ciara.

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Health Reporter

Ciara McCarthy covers public health and health care for the Advocate as a Report for America corps member. Questions, tips, or ideas? Please get in touch: cmccarthy@vicad.com or call 361-580-6597.

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