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Texas House Advances Bill To Expand State's Medical Marijuana Program

Epileptic Council

The Texas House advanced a bill Monday that would expand the state’s medical marijuana program. The program, which is one of the most restrictive in the country, allows only patients with intractable epilepsy to be prescribed CBD oil with low levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC.

Thalia Seggelink of Austin is with the group Moms Advocating For Medical Marijuana For Autism or MAMMA.  When her 13-year-old son Lance was first diagnosed with autism, medical experts gave Seggelink treatment options that scared her. So she explored CBD oil as an alternative treatment.

“I had nothing else to lose — it was either that or put him on antipsychotics or amphetamine. There were a lot of things we could’ve done pharmaceutically that seemed far more scary by the time I educated myself.” she said.

Seggelink said she would have tried to get the CBD oil through the state’s medical marijuana program, but autism isn’t a qualifying condition, and it was easier for her to order it online.

“The reports from school is he is a happy boy,” she said. “I mean, he is doing really well. We’ll see bits of impulse but he’s able to control his aggression now, and he’s able to function.”

Even with his progress, she said she wished she could discuss this treatment with her doctor.

“Just like when you have different SSRIs — one might work better than another — and go back to the doctor, and you have the discussion and talk about what worked and didn’t work. That’s what we are looking for here.” Seggelink said.

Credit Ryan Poppe/TPR

The one qualifying condition under the state’s medical marijuana program is intractable epilepsy. There are 135,000 eligible patients in the state but only 703 people are currently being treated.

“The truth of the matter is out of the 700 or so patients that have come through the compassionate use registry, we serve 550 of those, and we continue to lose money each and every month," said Morris Denton, CEO of Compassionate Cultivation, one of the three state-sanctioned dispensaries. “I mean, the hurdles and the requirements that Texas puts on this have made it all but impossible for someone to participate.”

Sindi Rosales is the CEO for the Epilepsy Foundation Central & South Texas, one of the main groups that helped get the state’s medical marijuana law passed four years ago. She said at the time, a very restrictive program to help patients with intractable epilepsy was as far as lawmakers were willing to go.

“I think we wrote it with the right safeguards for the right reasons, and it just demonstrated our respect for the product. So I think we wrote the legislation the right way it needed to be written in 2015.” Rosales said.

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in 2015 after studies began to show CBD’s ability to reduce seizure activity. The legislation was meant to be a placeholder for lawmakers to expand upon but that hasn’t been a priority over the last two sessions.

This session saw a renewed effort.

A bill by Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio III would would add several additional medical qualifying conditions:  autism, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Tourette's syndrome, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.

Credit Ryan Poppe
Rep. Eddie Lucio III, a Democrat from Brownsville.

The bill would also cover any medical condition that produces any of the following seven conditions: severe nausea, severe and persistent muscle spasms, seizures, neuropathy or severe intractable pain, cachexia or wasting syndrome, endocannabinoid deficiency syndrome and tic disorders.

Lastly, it establishes a review board to develop guidelines for medical marijuana.

Lucio believes he’s found common ground with House Republicans, who are concerned the program could become too lenient.

“Given the nature of this plant and its history, people want to make sure that there is integrity with this system, but they took it a step further and said, ‘We want to make sure we add conditions that we as a legislature feel are merited.’ ” Lucio said.

The bill will soon head over to the Texas Senate, where marijuana reform has not been a priority among Senate Republicans or the chambers leadership this session.  

Ryan Poppe can be reached at RPoppe@TPR.org and on Twitter at @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.