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Veterans, businesses ask Texas lawmakers to keep hemp products legal; others call for complete ban

Delta 8 THC products on sale in East Dallas. Last month, Texas' Republican Lt. Governor Dan Patrick asked a state Senate committee to examine a potential ban on Delta 8 and Delta 9 products in Texas.
Rachel Osier Lindley
The Texas Newsroom
Delta 8 THC products on sale in East Dallas. Last month, Texas' Republican Lt. Governor Dan Patrick asked a state Senate committee to examine a potential ban on Delta 8 and Delta 9 products in Texas.

For Mitch Fuller, the hemp-derived products available to legally purchase in Texas are life-saving medications that can prevent veteran deaths by suicide or lethal overdoses from opioids that are prescribed by traditional doctors.

For Dr. Sheela Gavvala, the same products are responsible for a spike in emergency room visits by young children and teenagers who could suffer long-term effects from ingesting high doses of the products.

The dueling testimonies from Fuller, the legislative director for the Texas VFW, and Gavvala, a Houston-based pediatrician, were just two of the dozens of the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs during an hours-long hearing over possibly banning Delta 8 and Delta 9 products in Texas.

The products hit the shelves after the passage of the Farm Bill in 2018, which said hemp products with low amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, were no longer considered marijuana if their THC content wasn’t more than 0.3%. That prompted Texas lawmakers in 2019 to pass House Bill 1325, which allowed farmers to grow hemp in Texas.

But lawmakers claim that a loophole allows products that can produce a high similar to marijuana to flourish in Texas with little to no regulation. Retailers also sell THC-A, a precursor to THC that can produce the same effect as marijuana once heated.

The Texas Department of State Health tried to ban Delta 8 but a pending lawsuit has kept the product legal and on the shelves. The litigation is now before the Texas Supreme Court.

The interim charge for the committee included investigating how the products are marketed to children and to consider additional regulation of the products.

Texas already has a medicinal program called theTexas Compassionate Use Program. But it’s hard to access, expensive, and doesn’t treat all disabilities, several witnesses said.

Fuller said banning the products would cut off a source of therapeutic medicine embraced by a wider swath of the Texas veteran community. He said that a separate interim charge that examines veterans’ mental health and suicide prevention conflicts with the order to consider banning hemp products.

“Let us choose the path for our healing. Access to hemp-derived consumables saves lives in our community. It is affordable, it is effective, and it is an accessible alternative to opioids,” he said. “We are extremely passionate about this. We want the ability to function and not be high in a pharmaceutical fog, which kills thousands of our veterans, causes many of them to turn to alcohol, which, along with tobacco, kills millions annually. And no one is suggesting banning alcohol or, tobacco.”

Shaun Salvaje, a 13-year Air Force veteran who served as a combat photojournalist and communications advisor for the secretary of the Air Force, told the committee that she was only able to testify because of her cannabis use and their treatment for her migraines, complex PTSD and chronic pain.

“Without it, my face would droop. My speech would slur. It would look like I'm having a stroke,” she said. “We still have a lot to develop in terms of medical programming, but cannabis has been a solution for me.”

Yet others were wholeheartedly unconvinced about the benefits and urged the committee to consider a total ban.

Houston resident Rhonda Howard said THC products have caused her family to “go through Hell” due to her son’s behavior after becoming addicted to marijuana and other THC products. She said her son was smart but a little awkward, which led him to start using marijuana in college.

“It has now been four years, he's been in and out of psychiatric hospitals due to psychotic states. I've had to call the police on my own son so many times for crisis intervention after he smoked THC products,” she said. “Because that's when he became psychotic. Our family has been forever impacted.”

Gavvala, the pediatrician from Houston, said accidental overdoses have skyrocketed.

“I personally have taken care of numerous kids that have come in with THC poisoning, some as young as 2 or 3 years old. They come in with altered consciousness, they're drowsy, they're sleepy,” she said. “They can't walk or talk like normal. And in severe cases, they do have difficulty breathing. These symptoms can last hours to days.”

Gavvala suggested mandating age limits, or age gating, on who can buy the products should they remain legal in the state. The majority of retailers who testified agreed that would be a smart solution.

“Over the last couple sessions, we have actively pushed for age gating, and this is something we will continue to push for,” testified Lukas Gilky, a veteran and founder of Hometown Heroes, a hemp-product retail store. “It really isn't up to us and how this happens, and we want to work with all of you and help you do reasonable regulations.”

An outright ban, he added, would decimate a multi-million-dollar industry that employs tens of thousands of Texans.

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said it wasn’t the Texas Legislature’s intent to allow ingestible hemp products to flourish and be widely available. Instead, House Bill 1325, which he cosponsored in the upper chamber, was meant to put Texas farmers on a level playing field.

“It was meant to give agriculture a new product for the market, specifically in the fiber market,” he said. “And as predicted, when I passed that, I said, ‘If you guys screw this up by being cute and getting people high from it, there will be consequences.’”

Perry accused retailers of marketing the products similar to how cigarette companies used to target underage smokers. And now they’re realizing the aftereffects, he said.

“This is the same industry that mimicked the Joe Camel programs back in the 50s and 60s for tobacco use. And now they're advocating they didn't see it coming,” he said. “They're smarter than that. They knew exactly what they were going to get.”

Though the Texas Senate appears poised to file legislation to ban or regulate hemp products when the Texas Legislature reconvenes next year in Austin, it’s unclear what the Texas House will do. Unlike the state senate, the Texas House’s interim charges didn’t include examining the issue.

Copyright 2024 KERA

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom