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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.

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Congressional Committee Asks JUUL For Documents On Marijuana Partnerships

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Is the e-cigarette company JUUL planning on expanding its stake in the marijuana industry?

That’s one question the chair of a congressional subcommittee asked the company in a letter concerning JUUL’s role in the “youth e-cigarette epidemic” earlier this month.

Lawmakers have frequently criticized JUUL for making products—specifically flavored e-cigarette cartridges—that allegedly appeal to young people at a time when rates of cigarette use are steadily declining. But while JUUL was developed by the cannabis vaporizer company PAX, it hasn’t announced plans to further partner with marijuana companies.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, apparently sees the possibility on the horizon, though.

In a letter sent to JUUL on June 7, the congressman said his panel was investigating youth e-cigarette usage and, specifically, how the company’s marketing tactics might be exacerbating the issue. He requested documents on everything from clinical trials on how JUUL devices divert people away from traditional cigarettes to communications on the company’s rationale for the nicotine concentration of JUUL pods.

Tucked within the extensive request is a question about potential marijuana partnerships. Krishnamoorthi asked for:

“All documents, including memoranda and communications, referring or relating to proposals, plans, and/or intended partnerships or collaborations between JUUL and any cannabis-related companies, including but not limited to Cronos Group.”

It’s not clear where the Cronos-specific mention comes from, but the company has perviously caught the interest of the tobacco industry. The maker of Marlboro cigarettes, Altria Group, invested almost $2 billion in the Canada-based cannabis company in December. Two weeks later, Altria invested $13 billion in JUUL.

Marijuana Moment reached out to JUUL, Cronos and Krishnamoorthi’s office for comment, but representatives did not respond by the time of publication.

If a partnership does emerge, it would likely be met with some controversy, as opponents and proponents of marijuana reform alike have long expressed concern that the tobacco industry would take over the cannabis market and commercialize it in a way that mirrors how it peddled cigarettes.

Of course, given that tobacco use is declining and tobacco companies generally have the infrastructure that would make a pivot to cannabis relatively simple, such a partnership would not be especially surprising.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made the case several times that tobacco farmers in his state could leverage the federal legalization of industrial hemp and its derivatives by growing the crop to offset profit losses from declining tobacco sales.

Read Rep. Krishnamoorthi’s full letter to JUUL below:

2019-06-07.Krishnamoorthi t… by on Scribd

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

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New York Lawmakers Might Actually Vote On Marijuana Legalization This Week

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With just days left before the end of the legislative session, efforts to legalize marijuana in New York have been revived, with a possible vote this coming week.

Though momentum to pass a legalization measure seemed to largely die off after lawmakers in neighboring New Jersey announced they wouldn’t move forward with plans to end cannabis prohibition through the legislature, advocates are increasingly optimistic that a deal in the Empire State is imminent.

Democratic members in both the Senate and Assembly held conferences last week to discuss details of the legislation. Spectrum News reported that the meetings went well, with members indicating that there’s support for the measure.

That’s just one of several positive signs that a proposal many observers thought was dead for the year has new life.

On Saturday and Sunday, staff for legislative leaders from both chambers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) met to negotiate provisions of a revised legalization plan.

On Wednesday, an earlier Senate version of the bill was assigned “same as” status in the Assembly version. That means the current proposals in each chamber lined up with identical language and is considered to be an indicator that the legislation could pass.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) said on Friday that his party has yet to determine whether they’ll bring the bill to the floor, but he added that “I think there is support in the conference.”

He also characterized the window of time until the end of the session on Wednesday as “an eternity.”

Cuomo, who said late last month that passing legalization remains a top 10 priority, has said that lawmakers who fail to approve items on his agenda, including ending cannabis prohibition, “should all be primaried, because that is a failure of a basic progressive agenda.”

On the flip side, the chairman of New York’s Democratic Party said earlier this month that if the Senate approves the legalization bill, they run to risk of alienating voters in certain areas such as Long Island and upstate New York. But that argument neglects to account for recent polling that shows voters in those regions strongly support legalization.

Notably, the measure’s most vocal opponents with the anti-legalization Smart Approaches to Marijuana have been sending email blasts in recent days urging their supports to call senators and voice opposition to the bill, giving the impression that the group is anticipating a vote.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D), sponsor of the legalization legislation, seemed to confirm that suspicion on Friday, stating that after “conversations with my co-sponsor and colleague in the Senate, I am even more confident of a path for victory.”

But despite that confidence, the fate of legalization in New York remains murky. An analysis earlier this month found that legalization was two votes short of a needed majority in the Senate.

Meanwhile, a number of key elected officials are calling on the governor and lawmakers to not only push legalization over the finish line but to include certain key provisions in the final legislation.

State Attorney General Letitia James (D) sent a letter urging that the bill expunge prior cannabis records.

“Before we create a booming business for legal marijuana, we must provide relief to those individuals that have paid much more to society than what was due,” she wrote.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), a 2020 presidential candidate, also pushed for expungements and said in a Twitter thread that legalization should “empower local business and not big corporations.”

And the Manhattan and Albany County district attorneys co-authored an op-ed calling leaders to “correct staggering inequities and promote public safety by passing” legalization.

 

The Buffalo News reported on Sunday afternoon that there were still a number of outstanding issues left to be settled between lawmakers, including whether or not home cultivation of cannabis would be allowed, how tax revenue would be allocated and whether localities would have to proactively opt in to allowing marijuana businesses or if there would instead be an opt out provision for those wanting to ban cannabis commerce.

The session ends on Wednesday, and so far no vote has been scheduled in either chamber.

Meanwhile, lawmakers early on Monday morning filed what appears to be backup legislation to expand the decriminalization of marijuana and to provide a process to expunge or vacate prior cannabis convictions. And others support putting legalization on the ballot through a referendum that voters can decide on.

The situation is very fluid, and over the next few days advocates will be stepping up the push for action in Albany. On Sunday, they held a rally outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office.

Bill Allowing Interstate Marijuana Commerce Heads To Oregon Governor’s Desk

This post has been updated to include the latest developments as well as comment from a number of elected officials.

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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Texas Governor Signs Bill To Expand State’s Medical Marijuana Program

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The governor of Texas signed a bill into law on Friday that significantly expands the state’s medical cannabis program.

The legislation, which was overwhelmingly approved by lawmakers last month, adds multiple medical conditions to the list of disorders that qualify patients of low-THC marijuana. Currently only patients with intractable epilepsy qualify under the CBD-focused program.

New qualifying conditions include epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, autism, spasticity and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed the bill with little fanfare.

Reform advocates said the legislation is a big step in the right direction, even though it doesn’t go as far as they’d hoped. A 0.5 THC cap on marijuana products remained in the bill, for example, and a section that would have established a research program to study the therapeutic potential of cannabis was removed.

“Cannabis is effective medicine for many patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, told Marijuana Moment. “HB 3703 represents a positive step toward a functional medical cannabis program, but sadly, it still leaves behind millions of Texas families that could benefit from legal access.”

Also this legislative session, the House of Representatives approved bills to more comprehensively expand the medical cannabis program and to decriminalize marijuana possession, but they died in the Senate.

Abbott signed a hemp legalization bill earlier this week.

Bill Allowing Interstate Marijuana Commerce Heads To Oregon Governor’s Desk

Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.

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