Texas patients sharpen plea for medical marijuana legalization

  • Bob Sechler
  • American-Statesman Staff
4:34 p.m Tuesday, May 2, 2017 Business

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information from Tuesday night’s hearing.

Advocates for legalizing marijuana in Texas for medical purposes delivered a simple plea to state lawmakers Tuesday night: Don’t let misconceptions continue to block a life-improving treatment for people with serious health problems.

They drove home their request with wrenching personal tales of debilitating conditions untreatable with conventional drugs because of ineffectiveness or intolerable side effects.

Medicinal marijuana “will allow me to get off some really strong drugs — some of which harm me as much as my ailment does,” said Cherie Rineker, a 49-year-old mother from Lake Jackson who was diagnosed with a type of incurable blood cancer in 2012. “There’s no moral high ground in denying medical patients medicinal marijuana when allowable prescriptions rob us of our health.”

Rineker made her comments during a lengthy hearing that stretched from Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning on House Bill 2107, which would make marijuana for medical purposes broadly legal in Texas. The hearing, conducted by the House Committee on Public Health, had its start delayed while the full House remained in session.

Rineker, one of several dozen people who turned out to support HB 2107, said she tried medical marijuana in Colorado — where it is legal — and was able to cut back drastically on her prescription drugs, including high-powered pain medication and anti-depressants. She said her appetite also was restored, an important development for patients undergoing nausea-inducing chemotherapy.

“I actually had a desire to eat,” she said. “While in Colorado, I never once reached for my opiods.”

Other supporters who testified included members of the group Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, as well as veterans and a number of health professionals who contend marijuana can be a useful treatment for many ailments, with fewer side effects than conventional medications.

Two years ago, Texas lawmakers approved what’s known as the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing oils made from cannabidiol for medical purposes. Cannabidiol, commonly called CBD, is found in marijuana plants but doesn’t produce euphoria or a high.

However, that law has yet to have any impact because the first Texas CBD dispensaries haven’t been fully licensed yet. It also restricts the compound’s use to certain patients suffering from a rare form of epilepsy, and only after they’ve first tried two conventional drugs that prove to be ineffective. Many advocates for medical marijuana have said the Compassionate Use Act is so restrictive it’s useless for many people.

HB 2107 would legalize medical use of all parts of the marijuana plant — including tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which induces a high for users — for any doctor-corroborated debilitating health condition, such as cancer, chronic pain, autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I could eliminate so many (prescription) drugs and be pain free and sleep and not have so much anxiety — if I had access to this in Texas,” said Mary Kate Bennett, 60, prior to the start of the hearing. She said she suffers incapacitating pain from nerve damage suffered during knee operations more than a decade ago.

Just getting a hearing on HB 2107 constitutes a small victory for medical marijuana advocates. Last week, they rallied in front of the Capitol to pressure lawmakers into holding a hearing on HB 2107 and a companion bill in the Senate, SB 269, both of which have spent weeks languishing in committees with no action.

Garnering a hearing is an initial step if a bill is to gain traction and have a chance of advancing in the Legislature.

“We can’t really tolerate indecision from our legislators anymore,” said Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit group focused on reforming marijuana laws. “All of these people here who can benefit from this don’t have time to wait.”

State Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, chairs the House Public Health Committee and called the hearing on HB 2107 in the wake of last week’s rally. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, has yet to call a hearing on SB 269, which is in his committee.

Separately, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced this week that it has “conditionally approved” three companies — Cansortium Texas, Compassionate Cultivation and Surterra Texas — as the first CBD dispensaries in the state under the Compassionate Use Act, out of 43 applicants. The agency now has until Sept. 1 to conduct on-site inspections of their facilities and “determine whether these three applicants will be issued dispensing organization licenses,” it said.

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