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Medical Cannabis Expansion Has High Support In Texas Legislature, But Lt. Gov. Might Stand In The Way

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By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

One lawmaker yelled, “This is a bad bill.” Others booed as Klick argued that her bill would legalize medical cannabis in the most narrow way possible. It only allowed the sale of specific medical cannabis products if they contained low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC — to Texans with intractable epilepsy who had already tried two Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. Patients also needed to be permanent Texas residents and get approval from two doctors listed on the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas.

Getting her measure across the finish line in the House amounted to nothing short of a floor fight. Yet the bill, dubbed the Compassionate Use Act, ultimately passed both chambers that year, sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott, who later signed it into law. Three dispensaries have since opened in Texas.

Now, nearly four years later, a broad coalition of lawmakers plus some powerful lobbyists support expanding access to medical cannabis in Texas. But bills to do so face a major obstacle: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, who can single-handedly block any legislation from coming up for a vote in the upper chamber.

In a statement to The Texas Tribune, Patrick spokesperson Alejandro Garcia said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen hasn’t publicly expressed a position on expanding the Compassionate Use Act, but he voted against the bill in 2015. According to a person familiar with his thinking, he does not plan to get in the way of the chamber if there is support for amending the program.

Klick, who did not respond to request for comment, is one of a handful of lawmakers this session who has put forth a bill to expand the list of patients eligible for the drug. If passed, her measure would give Texans with multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and spasticity access to medical cannabis.

In addition to Klick’s bill, state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, filed a bill that would increase the cap on THC levels in medical cannabis legally grown in Texas from 0.5 percent to nearly 1 percent, and allow physicians on the state’s Compassionate Use Registry to decide which patients need it rather than restricting it to those with certain conditions. Two other measures filed by Democrats would drastically expand the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for the drug.

It’s not unusual for the more conservative upper chamber to stall marijuana-related bills. A Compassionate Use Act expansion bill in 2017 from state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, never received a hearing.

“I don’t understand why politicians are trying to get between the doctor and the patient on something that doesn’t do anything but help the patient,” said Menéndez, who also filed a bill this session that would expand the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for medical cannabis to include illnesses like terminal cancer, autism, Crohn’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Why are we sticking our heads in the sand?

“I can’t give up on all the people who have put their confidence on my working hard on this issue, and I’m not going to.”

But Patrick isn’t the only one skeptical of an expansion measure. Law enforcement groups have also said they fear expanding medical cannabis in the state would lead to the full-blown legalization of marijuana.

“Let’s not sugarcoat it,” said Mitch Slaymaker, deputy executive director for the Texas Municipal Police Association, whose expertise is not in the realm of what constitutes a need for medical marijuana. “Our concern is that expanding medical cannabis is slowly inoculating the public a little more to where it may eventually be fully legalized.”

The association’s main concern, he said, is that if fully decriminalized law enforcement won’t be able to test drivers to determine how affected they are.

Even Campbell, whose Senate Bill 2416 would also establish a review board to approve and oversee research of higher THC cannabis oil for medical purposes, said she agreed with the sentiments put forth by Patrick. “That’s why she introduced a medical cannabis oil bill based on what the Legislature previously passed, with a heavy emphasis on medically driven research,” spokeswoman Alice Claiborne said.

“The senator has great respect for Lt. Gov. Patrick and looks forward to working closely with his office on this subject matter,” Claiborne added.

But it’s unclear if any such measure will even draw a hearing this year, let alone get debated before the full Senate. Matthew Russell, a spokesman for state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Brenham Republican who chairs the Senate Health & Human Services Committee, said the panel was “still reviewing the proposed legislation and gathering information.”

“No decision has been made on either piece of legislation,” Russell said of Menéndez’s and Campbell’s bills.

The House, meanwhile, is handling marijuana-related bills with a different speed and tone. Two years ago, Democratic state Rep. Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville filed a measure that would’ve expanded the program to patients with medical conditions such as terminal cancer and PTSD. More than half of the Texas House — nearly 80 members — signed on as authors, co-authors or joint authors, yet it didn’t make it to the floor in time for a vote. Lucio filed a similar bill this session that would expand the list of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for the oil to include autism and Crohn’s disease, among others.

In 2017, “we moved a comprehensive medicinal marijuana bill further than anyone ever has in the Legislature,” Lucio said. “There was such broad support, and I think it’s grown even more so since then. It’s discussed even more openly now.”

One sign in support of Lucio’s reading of the chamber: Last week, Democratic state Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, who chairs the House Public Health Committee, created a subcommittee on medical marijuana to hear just proposals related to the issue.

“There are so many things we want to do to make [medical marijuana] legally available to help people if it can help them,” Thompson said. “I’m assuming the public wants to have a say on this issue, and I’m trying to do my best to give them a say.”

And although the Senate may refuse to budge on medical expansion bills, Thompson said they would still receive a fair shake in the lower chamber.

“If the Senate wants to take another position, then that’s on them,” Thompson said. “I’m just going to do what I can do from where I stand.”

Abbott, for his part, said in 2015 that Texas lawmakers wouldn’t approve legislation that would legalize marijuana. A spokesperson for Abbott did not respond to request for comment on whether he’d back an expansion of the current medical cannabis system.

Still, the effort to expand the Compassionate Use Act has drawn some politically powerful supporters since the last legislative session. In its most recent platform, the Republican Party of Texas approved a plank asking the Legislature to “improve the 2015 Compassionate Use Act to allow doctors to determine the appropriate use of cannabis to certified patients.”

And earlier this month, a new group lobbying for medical marijuana emerged comprising players with some serious clout in the Capitol — including Allen Blakemore, a top political consultant for Patrick.

Texans for Expanded Access to Medical Marijuana, dubbed TEAMM, said it will work to educate the public and lawmakers about the benefits of expanding medical cannabis to those with illnesses like cancer and traumatic brain injury. The group is backed by Green Peak Innovations, a Michigan-based medical cannabis firm.

According to a poll commissioned by TEAMM, 81 percent of Texas voters support the expansion of medical marijuana and 86 percent believe that doctors and researchers — as opposed to the state — should decide when patients have access to medical marijuana.

“This is one of the last true bipartisan issues out there,” said Brian Sweany, a member of TEAMM’s leadership. “I don’t think it surprises anyone how high support is for this among Democrats, but people who identify as conservative Republicans also overwhelmingly support this.”

More than 30 states allow the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas is one of nearly a dozen states that only allows for “low THC, high CBD” products for medical situations in limited circumstances.

“We’re going to do our job in the House, and the bill that gets out of the House — whether it’s mine or Klick’s or some compromise of the two — is going to help a lot of people,” Lucio said. “If it gets to the Senate, then it’s up to the lieutenant governor to make that decision, and he has to answer to the Texans who overwhelmingly support this.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

(Disclosure: Allen Blakemore has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.)

Photo element courtesy of Gage Skidmore.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Politics

DC Activists Have A New Plan To Get Psychedelics Decriminalization On The Ballot Despite Coronavirus

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Activists in Washington, D.C. are considering a new strategy to get a measure to decriminalize psychedelics on the November ballot, with the coronavirus outbreak having forced them to suspend in-person signature gathering.

While Decriminalize Nature D.C. hoped that officials would pass emergency legislation allowing the digital collection of signatures, they aren’t actively considering that option. And the District Council’s chairman said he would not simply place the initiative on the ballot for voters to decide regardless of the signature count.

That’s left the group in a challenging position. But they’re not out of ideas yet.

Now the campaign is exploring the possibility of conducting “micro-scale petition signature collection” to make the ballot. The plan would involve having petitions mailed to supporters, who would circulate it and collect signatures from “registered DC voters in their immediate vicinity, such as family, roommates, friends and close-by neighbors” and then return the signed petitions to the campaign headquarters.

They’ve launched an online survey to determine the feasibility of the option. It asks prospective volunteers to estimate how many signatures they could theoretically collect under that limited scope and provide their mailing information should the campaign decide to move forward with the plan.

This is one of the last remaining options for the 2020 effort, which is working to make a wide range of psychedelics among the district’s lowest law enforcement priorities.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said during a press conference on Friday that he “would not say that we’re looking for legislative action to put [the initiative] on the ballot” outside of the conventional process.

Board of Elections Chairman Michael Bennett also took a question about the prospect of allow electronic signature collection. He said his panel is not considering the possibility “at this point.”

Watch the comments below, starting around 22:15:

Decriminalize Nature D.C. is one of numerous groups working to change local and state drug policy laws. And it’s not alone in its struggle amid the current pandemic.

A California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

Arizona activists shared some more positive news last week, however, announcing that they have collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot—though they have not yet been submitted to or verified by the state.

Marijuana Legalization Left Out Of New York Budget, According To Draft Summary Document

Photo elements courtesy of carlosemmaskype and Apollo.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Marijuana Legalization Left Out Of New York Budget, According To Draft Summary Document

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The New York legislature seems poised to eliminate a proposal to legalize marijuana through the budget this year, according to an unverified document outlining the policies included in the spending legislation currently under final negotiations ahead of a vote this week.

The draft budget report, which was shared with Marijuana Moment, includes a line stating that the “Adopted Budget omits the Executive proposal to legalize adult use cannabis.”

It also “eliminates $34.31 million in funding for the Office for Cannabis Management,” a government body that would have been responsible for regulating the marijuana market.

The apparent exclusion of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) legalization proposal, while disappointing to reform advocates, is not entirely surprising in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. While the governor repeatedly stressed that the policy change should be enacted through the budget, he and top lawmakers have tried to temper expectations in recent weeks as legislative priorities have shifted during the pandemic.

But to some, the draft adopted budget report isn’t necessarily a death knell for the reform move, and they hope lawmakers can still accomplish legalization this year through separate legislation.

“We are disappointed adult use is not in the budget since it would have been a huge economic benefit to New York farmers and small businesses,” Allan Gandelman, president of the NY Cannabis Growers & Processors Association, told Marijuana Moment. “We hope to continue working with the governor and the legislature to get this done as soon as possible.”

The legislature must still vote on the final budget, but there’s little time left to hash out a deal on comprehensive reform ahead of a Wednesday deadline. Sen. Liz Krueger (D) filed a revised standalone legalization bill earlier this month, language of which could have theoretically been inserted into the budget, but it’s not clear that option remains on the table.

Marijuana Moment reached out to Senate and Assembly leadership for comment about the draft budget summary, but representatives were not immediately available. The document, which according to its metadata was last modified on Sunday afternoon, contains highlighted sections for issues that are “still open” for negotiation, but that is not the case for the cannabis items.

This is the second year in a row that Cuomo has pitched legalization as part of his spending plan. Last year, months of negotiation between his office and lawmakers failed to produce a passable bill—with disagreements centering on issues such as how tax revenue would be allocated—and so the effort carried over to this year.

The governor seemed confident that 2020 would be the year for legal cannabis in New York, and he included the proposal in his State of the State address in January. As recently as last week, he indicated the effort was still alive, though he also recognized that it may prove too complicated an issue to ultimately deliver through the budget this round.

“We will pass a budget and address the policy items that we laid out and we discussed because it’s not just about passing a budget and the numbers,” he said. “There are many policy initiatives that I laid out back in January, and we’re going to pursue all of them.”

“The only caveat was if you have a really complex issue that normally would require weeks of nuanced, detailed negotiation to do it right, that we won’t do. Because I don’t want to pass any bills that are not really intelligent that I then have to come back and deal with again next year,” he continued. “If it’s a highly complex issue, I get it and then let’s put it off because we don’t want to do something sloppy.”

Another part of the governor’s legalization plan originally involved visiting legal cannabis states to learn from their experiences and take lessons back home. However, Cuomo said that trip was also impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, drug policy reform efforts across the country are struggling amid the pandemic.

Activists in California recently released a video asking California officials to allow digital signatures for a petition to revise the state’s adult-use marijuana program. In Washington, D.C., advocates for a measure to decriminalize psychedelics similarly wrote to the mayor and local lawmakers, imploring them to accept online signatures for their ballot petition.

Another California campaign to legalize psilocybin mushrooms is struggling and asking for electronic signature gathering to qualify for the ballot. An effort to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska is facing similar signature gathering challenges. A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri is also in jeopardy.

In Oregon, advocates for a measure to decriminalize drug possession and a separate initiative to legalize psilocybin for therapeutic purposes have suspended in-person campaign events amid the pandemic.

Arizona activists shared some more positive news last week, however, announcing that they have collected more than enough signatures to qualify for the state’s November ballot—though they have not yet been submitted to or verified by the state.

Senate Housing Bill Would Prevent Evictions For State-Legal Marijuana Extraction

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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Senate Housing Bill Would Prevent Evictions For State-Legal Marijuana Extraction

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A new congressional bill designed to promote affordable housing in the U.S. includes a provision that would prevent landlords from evicting people over manufacturing marijuana extracts if they have a license to do so.

Under the legislation, filed earlier this month by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), there’s a list of “just causes for eviction” such as failure to pay rent or causing significant damage to a property.

The “manufacture of a cannabinoid extract” is another cause for eviction, “unless the tenant holds a license to manufacture the cannabinoid extract under Federal, State, or Tribal law.”

Curiously, however, the bill lacks any additional protections for other state-legal cannabis activities, including simple possession. It’s possible that a drafting error is to blame, but Merkley’s office did not respond to Marijuana Moment’s request for comment.

Just above the manufacturing provision is another that states that “the unlawful manufacture, delivery, or possession of a controlled substance” is ground for eviction, though it contains no caveat exempting state-legal activity as cause for eviction.

Despite the growing number of states moving to allow cannabis for medical or recreational use, it remains “unlawful” under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

While advocates would likely applaud the inclusion of state-legal protection language, it’s also the case that eviction proceedings are handled at the state level, and so some courts would presumably defer to state law when it comes to cannabis-related eviction cases.

Also, when it comes to the manufacturing provision, states generally do not provide licenses that would specifically allow individuals to produce marijuana extracts in their residences, so it’s unclear how impactful that policy would be in practice if enacted into law.

Of course, the cannabis provision is just one notable part of a comprehensive housing bill, which aims to “address the shortcomings of our current housing policies and funding levels by holistically addressing disparities and systematic obstacles and ensuring an equitable outcome for the most vulnerable Americans.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) rolled out a different kind of housing reform bill last year that would protect people with low-level drug convictions from being denied access to or being evicted from public housing.

Letting VA Doctors Recommend Medical Marijuana To Veterans Won’t Cost Anything, Congressional Analysts Say

Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.
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