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Expansion Of Texas Medical Marijuana Laws Gaining Traction Among Lawmakers

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency

An effort to expand Texas’ medical marijuana law seems to be gaining traction among state agencies, lawmakers and possibly the governor. Advocates are pushing the state to authorize medicinal cannabis treatment for more medical conditions.

Bonnie Jensen’s 12-year old son, Mika, was born with autism.

The Houston-area mom said her son is homeschooled because of his outbursts when he feels stressed and anxious.

“We looked into the public school system when he was 4 years old, and we decided that he would benefit more from the type of environment we could offer him at home. And we also we felt like he would do better in full time behavioral therapy, so he did that for a few years until he aged out of it, which was at 10 years old,” Jensen said.

Jensen said she has not found any medication on the market that can de-escalate one of her son’s meltdowns.

“When he gets upset, he will attack us and hit us; claw us; try to bite us. He throws things. He throws chairs. He tried to break a window last weekend,” Jensen said.

But Jensen said a recent study from Chile has shown positive results in using medical cannabis to reduce these types of episodes in autistic children. That same type of research sparked a Texas advisory council this month to recommend that lawmakers consider expanding the number of medical diagnoses authorized to use cannabis for treatment, including autism.

According to the Texas Compassionate Use program, to qualify for inclusion on the state’s Compassionate Use Registry, a patient must be diagnosed with intractable epilepsy and have a doctor’s recommendation to use cannabidiol, also known as CBD oil, which is low in the psychoactive chemical THC, and it is highly-regulated by the state of Texas.

“What they wanted to do is to build on the compassionate use that we helped create and to expand that use but to make sure that it’s very careful and that it only goes to the people who really need it,” said Chris Masey, chair of the Policy Council for Children and Families under the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, who prepares biannual reports concerning Texas families for the Texas Legislature.

Masey said that, in April, the state council recommended increasing the number of dispensaries operating in Texas. Currently, state law only allows for three licensed facilities, two located just outside of Austin and another near the small town of Schulenburg.

He said the council will compile its recommendations into a special report for the Texas Legislature.

Masey said the report will also request that the Legislature commission a study of the use of marijuana in treating other medical conditions in children.

State Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, said he was  encouraged by the state agency’s recommendations.

Menendez has filed bills during the past two sessions aimed at expanding the state’s Compassionate Use program, and he plans to file a similar bill during the 2019 legislative session too.

“I think there needs to be two approaches — one we expand it, and two, we just say, 'look, there is enough evidence out there that says medicinal marijuana is safe and it can help people and that we should allow doctors working with their patients to make that decision,” Menendez said.

But state lawmakers pushing to expand the Compassionate Use program will also need to convince Gov. Greg Abbott that it’s a good idea.

When Abbott signed the bill in 2015, he said that CBD oil was not the same as medical marijuana, and he insisted that marijuana should not be legalized for medical or recreational use. As governor, he said, he would not allow it.

Bonnie Jensen, the Houston mom, hopes to change the governor’s view.

Jensen is a part of Moms Advocating for Medical Marijuana for Autism.

She and others from the group followed Abbott from one campaign stop to another.

“We met him at a Get Out The Vote rally in Sugarland, and he was very receptive to us. He showed concern for my son and really for all of our kids. And what he told me was that he was very open the idea to expanding TCUP to include qualifying conditions that have research to support their use of medical cannabis,” Jensen said.

Abbott’s campaign officials would not confirm what was said.

The governor's official opposition won’t be the only hurdle for those pushing for expansion of medical marijuana during what will be a busy 2019 legislative session.

Any type of legislation aimed at expanding the Texas Compassionate Use program will have to compete for lawmakers' attention as they grapple with efforts to fund rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey, consider property tax relief and redistricting.

Ryan Poppe can be reached atrpoppe@tpr.org or on Twitter@RyanPoppe1

Ryan started his radio career in 2002 working for Austin’s News Radio KLBJ-AM as a show producer for the station's organic gardening shows. This slowly evolved into a role as the morning show producer and later as the group’s executive producer.