Texas' bare-minimum medical THC program, 2015's Compassionate Use Act, appears set to get a little more robust this spring after the Texas Senate followed the Texas House in approving a new list of conditions eligible for the program.
When Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Compassionate Use Act four years ago, the law allowed those suffering from a single condition, intractable epilepsy, access to cannabidiol oil containing 0.5% THC. It took several years, but a state-licensed business called Compassionate Cultivation opened the state's first dispensary near Austin in 2018.
House Bill 3703, the proposal the Senate approved Wednesday, wouldn't expand the types of products eligible to be sold under the law — inhalers, edibles, oils and gel caps — or their potency, but it would make the population eligible for THC treatment in Texas quite a bit larger.
Under the version of HB 3703 passed Wednesday, doctors could prescribe THC to patients diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, ALS, autism, multiple sclerosis, spasticity or terminal cancer. The original House version of the bill covered only multiple sclerosis, the types of epilepsy not covered by the 2015 law and spasticity.
Despite the expansion passing unanimously, New Braunfels Republican Sen. Donna Campbell, the bill's sponsor in the Senate, took heat from both sides Wednesday, with advocates for marijuana-law reform arguing the changes didn't go far enough and some Republicans worrying that allowing more patients access to THC-based medicines could lead down a dark path to the full-blown legalization of recreational marijuana.
In addition to not covering all the conditions that could benefit from THC treatment, the bill's continuing limit on the percentage of THC in products available to patients limits the Compassionate Use Program's effectiveness for those who are eligible to participate, Texas NORML executive director Jax Finkel said after the vote.
"(The bill) maintains the current .5% THC ratio. That's concerning, because .5 THC will help some people but it will definitely not help everyone," Finkel said.
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Granbury Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell told Campbell that he didn't want Texas turning out like states that have legalized recreational marijuana use.
“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to recreational use,” Birdwell said. “I wouldn't be comfortable going any further than this because of what I’m seeing in Colorado, Washington and Oregon and what’s happening in those states. I am highly guarded.”
Birdwell wasn't concerned that the bill was a slippery slope, he said. He was concerned it was "a cliff."
The Senate version of House Bill 3703 will now go back to the House, where the bill's author, Rep. Stephanie Klick, will decide whether to accept the Senate's changes. If Klick does — she told Austin's Spectrum News on Wednesday that she would — the bill will head to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's desk for signature.