Texas might be ready to expand medical marijuana use

3:57 p.m Thursday, June 16, 2016 Business

Is Texas ready to embrace expanding medical treatments from marijuana?

Some state elected officials — along with some eager entrepreneurs — would like to see more allowable uses of the controversial plant when the 2017 legislative session comes around.

Last session, many Capitol observers were stunned when both chambers passed Senate Bill 339 and Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law. The law — which was authored by now-departing state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, and sponsored by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth — allows patients who suffer from a rare form of epilepsy to be treated legally with cannabidiol, or CBD as it is better known.

Cannabidiol is one of dozens of compounds found in the marijuana plant, but unlike its cousin tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, cannabidiol doesn’t produce a high or sense of euphoria.

Last session, skeptical lawmakers talked about how the measure could represent the “camel’s nose under the tent.” They predicted the bill would lead to future efforts to broaden uses of marijuana-derived medical treatments – and that’s what seems to be happening.

Supporters point to the 2016 State Convention of the Republican Party of Texas as evidence that the state’s most fervent GOP voters — the ones who drive so much of the agenda, especially in the state Senate – want more cannabis to be available for sale. At the convention, GOP loyalists approved a part of the official platform that called for a law to “allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to prescribed patients.”

Notably, the platform didn’t differentiate between CBD and THC treatments.

The Texas Department of Public Safety hasn’t yet completed the process to permit the CBD businesses to get up and running. The first permits are scheduled to be granted in June 2017.

Among those who support expanding the law is Patrick Moran, one of the state’s most high-profile marijuana entrepreneurs.

Moran, a lawyer and businessman, is working to open a cannabis growing operation and CBD dispensary in the North Texas town of Gunter, where he is retrofitting an old cotton gin.

“The potential is there,” Moran told the American-Statesman.

Moran estimates there are 150,000 potential and previously diagnosed clients in Texas, which means CBD could have a $900 million a year market in the state, he said.

Even if just 30 percent of the qualifying patients embrace CBD, Moran said, his business model works.

“I could build multigenerational wealth and build a legacy” under current conditions, he said.

Heather Fazio, the Texas political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said her organization has put together an estimate of the number of people who could benefit from medical marijuana. Using Colorado’s medical program as a guide, a comprehensive medical marijuana law in Texas — which would allow for all levels of THC and CBD that could treat many medical conditions — could treat about 565,000 patients.

Adam Bierman, CEO of the Los Angeles-based marijuana management and consulting firm MedMen, said Texas is well-positioned for the evolution of a robust medical marijuana industry.

“There will be a real industry there,” he said. “A new industry will be built.”

State law will expand beyond the narrow use of CBD as soon as lawmakers understand the will of the voters, he said.

“I’m confident that will happen sooner than later,” Bierman said.

Bierman, though, isn’t as bullish as Moran about the immediate future. He said the marijuana industry in Texas isn’t viable yet. And until it is, MedMen, which will be available to run day-to-day operations at dispensaries and marijuana grow houses, will have to stand ready to help grow the industry when it matures a bit more.

Bierman said the market will be primed after legislators allow a full spectrum of medical cannabis. State lawmakers also must tweak the law to allow doctors to “recommend” medical marijuana, not “prescribe” it, as the current law says, because marijuana is still illegal in the federal government’s eyes and cannot be prescribed.

After the conditions are met, Texas could be looking at a $2 billion to $3 billion a year industry, said Bierman, who came up with the figure by applying numbers from other states with legal medical weed, including California and Colorado.

Moran said he hopes the Legislature will vote next year to allow CBD to treat other diseases — such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS; chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a degenerative brain disease often found in athletes; post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD; and autism.

An expansion of the current law could allow entrepreneurs in the legal marijuana business to multiply their earnings by an extraordinary amount, Moran said.

No one thinks Texas is stopping with the narrowly written CBD law, Moran said.

State Rep. Jason Isaac, a Republican from Dripping Springs, also said he believes cannabis-derived treatments can treat PTSD and many other conditions.

Isaac, who co-authored the House version of the CBD bill, saw in his own household how tough of a sale it could be to expand laws around medical marijuana. His wife was staunchly opposed, but she changed her mind after she met with parents of children with epilepsy who found hope in CBD.

Isaac said he is hopeful that lawmakers will continue to accept the idea of cannabis-related treatments and approve an expansion of the law in 2017. Isaac has had conversations with Klick about filing more bills to allow for treatment of more diseases with marijuana-derived treatments, he said. Klick couldn’t be reached for comment.

“We need to expand compassionate uses,” Isaac said. “We need to give people more freedom.”

In the Texas Senate, there might not be a stronger advocate of expanding the use of grass to treat illness than Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. He tried — and failed — to pass a broad medical marijuana bill last session, but said he remains optimistic.

“I’m for medical marijuana, man,” he said. “I will be refiling the medicinal marijuana bill.”

Menéndez added that he would also be supportive of any expansion of the current CBD law for any therapeutic uses. Veterans tell him frequently that they don’t want to be treated with conventional drugs that often come with a host of side effects, such as depression, suicidal thoughts and gastrointestinal problems.

They don’t want to break the law, but they want relief with treatments stemming from the marijuana plant, he said.

“They feel it’s a natural substance,” Menéndez said. Many of them blame the pharmaceutical industry for keeping marijuana medical treatments less available, he added.

Menéndez said many Texas voters are becoming more accepting of marijuana use for medical reasons, and they are shunning the stigma that marijuana had in their younger years, Menéndez said.

Menéndez predicted that any bills calling for expanded use of CBD will have a much better chance of passing than wide-reaching medical marijuana legislation, “especially in a conservative Legislature like ours.”

“But that doesn’t mean I won’t try,” he said.

Menéndez didn’t have real numbers about how much economic impact the medical marijuana business might have on Texas, but he told Phillip Martin of the progressive political website Progress Texas in an interview that marijuana businesses would provide a significant bump for the state’s coffers.

“If you look at licensing we would get — the revenue we get from licensing — as well as the fees and taxes, it’d have a huge economic impact of a regulated medicinal market, which would mean billions of dollars to the bottom line of the state in benefits,” he told Martin.

Additionally, the senator said the GOP platform “will send a message to leadership.”

GOP Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declined to comment about any potential expansion of medical marijuana law in Texas.

A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott pointed to Abbott’s words during his signing into law of SB 339 a year ago when he reaffirmed his conviction to keep marijuana illegal in Texas, while allowing for CBD use to go forward in narrow circumstances.

“SB 339 does not open the door to marijuana in Texas. The very low level of THC in CBD oil does not, even if taken in large doses, give the user a high and has no street value,” Abbott said at the time. “There is no recreational use for CBD oil. It will, however, provide healing and hope for children who are afflicted by unrelenting seizures caused by epilepsy.”

Even with what seems to be growing support in the Legislature, medical marijuana likely will continue to be a politically thorny topic, and many lawmakers are likely to tread lightly on the issue.

The new GOP platform and the 2015 passage of a CBD law provides a lot of cover for lawmakers who might have otherwise been nervous about marijuana-related legislation. But the loss of state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, to state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in the GOP primary for the state Senate seat being vacated by Eltife, the CBD bill’s author, could complicate matters.

The loss of Simpson, whose libertarian stance on the legalization of marijuana contributed to his demise, could make legislators think twice about medical marijuana bills or even expanding the CBD law.

Still, Hughes said many conservatives remain open to the idea of cannabis for medical purposes, as long as there is evidence to support its touted benefits.

“It seems like we can have a discussion about medical use,” Hughes said. “I think we have to proceed with great caution.”

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