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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

Conservative Group ALEC Floats Marijuana Banking And CBD Bills For States To Consider

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An influential conservative organization is floating two cannabis-related resolutions that could be used as models for future state legislation.

Tasks forces of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit that brings together conservative lawmakers and private sector stakeholders to draft and distribute model policies for consideration by state legislatures, discussed banking issues in the marijuana industry and enacting hemp and CBD legalization bills at the group’s 46th annual meeting in Austin last week.

ALEC’s Commerce, Insurance and Economic Development (CIE) Task Force tackled cannabis financial services issues during Thursday’s session, weighing a draft resolution that urges Congress to “enact common-sense federal laws that respect state law and promote public safety without compromising federal enforcement of anti-money laundering laws against criminal enterprises.”

“Congress has sole authority to solve the cannabis banking issue by enacting legislation that provides protections for depository institutions that offer financial services to cannabis-related legitimate businesses and service providers for such businesses,” the resolution states.

The measure specifically says it does not take a position on marijuana legalization itself but rather focuses on how conflicting state and federal cannabis laws mean “the vast majority of financial institutions are unwilling to provide services [to marijuana businesses] and those that do could be subject to severe criminal and civil penalties.”

Because of that problem, many such businesses are operating on a largely cash basis, which ALEC described as “inefficient, expensive, opaque, and make illicit activity more difficult for law enforcement and state regulators to track.”

The resolution also emphasizes the bipartisan nature of resolving the banking issue, referencing a recent letter from 38 state and territory attorneys general that called on Congress to enact a legislative fix.

ALEC’s support for resolving financial uncertainty in the cannabis industry is just one of many recent indicators that legislation such as the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is considered a nonpartisan issue. The House Financial Services Committee approved the SAFE Banking Act in March, and the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on the topic last month, despite its Republican chairman initially stating that the panel wouldn’t discuss it as long as marijuana remained federally illegal.

Over in ALEC’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture (EEA) Task Force, members debated draft legislation for states that would “legalize the agricultural production and sale of hemp as well as Cannabidiol oil, commonly known as CBD oil” but explicitly would “not legalize marijuana.”

The model policy seems to be targeted at the limited number of states that still have hemp prohibition on the books despite the crop’s federal legalization under the 2018 Farm Bill. Those states include Idaho, South Dakota and Mississippi, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Provisions of the draft policy signal that the proposal would be in compliance with federal law, which defines hemp as cannabis that contains no more than 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. However, while the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp and its derivatives, the Food and Drug Administration has said that unless alternative rules are issued for CBD, it cannot legally be marketed in food items or dietary supplement.

ALEC’s draft policy would provide for such marketing, though. It stipulates that CBD products that contain no THC can sold be if the product is “intended for topical application, oral consumption, or inhalation, by humans, or for consumption by animals.”

It’s not clear how the task forces voted or what exactly the immediate next steps would be if the draft proposals were approved and made final at last week’s conference. Marijuana Moment reached out to representatives of ALEC for clarification but did not hear back by the time of publication.

FBI Seeks Tips On Marijuana Industry Corruption

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Marijuana Legalization Measure Advances One Step In South Dakota

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South Dakota’s attorney general filed an official explanation of a proposed ballot measure to legalize marijuana on Friday.

While separate organizations are working to get a medical cannabis-focused initiative on the state’s 2020 ballot, activists behind this measure are hoping to incorporate recreational legalization, medical marijuana reform and hemp into one package.

Adult-use legalization would be accomplished through a constitutional amendment under the initiative, which would separately require the legislature to pass legislation creating rules for medical cannabis and hemp.

“The constitutional amendment legalizes the possession, use, transport, and distribution of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia by people age 21 and older. Individuals may possess or distribute one ounce or less of marijuana,” Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg (R) wrote. “Marijuana plants and marijuana produced from those plants may also be possessed under certain conditions.”

The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be responsible for issuing licenses for cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Individual jurisdictions would be able to opt out of allowing such facilities in their areas.

“The Department must enact rules to implement and enforce this amendment,” the explanation states. “The amendment requires the Legislature to pass laws regarding medical use of marijuana. The amendment does not legalize hemp; it requires the Legislature to pass laws regulating the cultivation, processing, and sale of hemp.”

The initiative calls for a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana sales. That revenue would be used to fund the Department of Revenue’s implementation and regulation of the legal cannabis system, with remaining tax dollars going toward public education and the state general fund.

Ravnsborg said that judicial clarification of the amendment “may be necessary” and notes that marijuana “remains illegal under Federal law.”

The attorney general issued a similar explanation of a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize medical cannabis earlier this month.

This latest move comes one day after advocacy organization New Approach South Dakota announced that their medical marijuana initiative was certified, enabling them to begin the signature gathering process.

Several other cannabis initiatives are in the process of being certified in the state, according to the attorney general’s website. In order to place constitutional amendments on the ballot, activists must collect 33,921 valid signatures from voters.

South Dakota is one of the last remaining states in the U.S. that has not legalized marijuana for any purposes.

GOP Senator Keeps Endorsing Medical Marijuana But Hasn’t Sponsored A Single Cannabis Bill

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Elizabeth Warren’s Plan For Indian Tribes Includes Marijuana Legalization

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) unveiled a plan on Friday that’s aimed at holding the federal government accountable for following through on its obligations to Native American tribes, and that includes ensuring that tribal marijuana programs are protected against federal intervention.

The plan emphasized Warren’s support for a bill she filed earlier this year that “would protect cannabis laws and policies that tribal nations adopted for themselves.”

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, who has faced criticism over claims of Native American heritage, pointed to federal reports showing that tribal programs generally have not received adequate funding and said it is imperative that legislation be enacted to “provide resources for housing, education, health care, self-determination, and public safety” for those communities.

To that end, Warren is planning to introduce a bill called the “Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act” alongside Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Before filing, however, the lawmakers are soliciting input on how best to draft the legislation, and are accepting written testimony until September 30.

While the proposed legislation itself doesn’t currently include marijuana-specific provisions, a press release and blog post on the topic address the senator’s sponsorship of the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which would allow tribal communities and states to set their own cannabis policies without Justice Department interference.

In order to provide economic opportunities to Native people, that “requires streamlining and removing unnecessary administrative barriers that impede economic growth on Tribal lands, respecting tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses, and promoting forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new and emerging economic opportunities.”

“For example, while not every tribe is interested in the economic opportunities associated with changing laws around marijuana, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important opportunity for economic development,” Warren’s campaign blog post states.

“I support full marijuana legalization, and have also introduced and worked on a bipartisan basis to advance the STATES Act, a proposal that would at a minimum safeguard the ability of states, territories, and Tribal Nations, to make their own marijuana policies,” she wrote.

A separate press release on Warren’s Senate website also touts her support for the STATES Act, saying she “worked hard to ensure” that it included tribal protections.

“It’s beyond time to make good on America’s responsibilities to Native peoples, and that is why I’m working with Congresswoman Haaland to draft legislation that will ensure the federal government lives up to its obligations and will empower tribal governments to address the needs of their citizens,” Warren said of the overall tribal plan. “We look forward to working closely with tribal nations to advance legislation that honors the United States’ promises to Native peoples.”

In an email blast to her campaign list, Warren included “a set of additional ideas to uphold the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations with Tribal Nations and to empower Native communities,” which includes her marijuana proposal:

“New economic opportunities: We also need to respect tribal jurisdiction over tribal businesses and promote forward-looking efforts to ensure full access to new economic opportunities. For example, a number of Tribal Nations view cannabis as an important economic opportunity. I support full marijuana legalization and have advanced the STATES Act, a proposal that would safeguard the ability of Tribal Nations to make their own marijuana policies.”

There’s increased interest in ensuring that Native populations receive the same benefits and protections as states as it concerns cannabis legislation.

In June, the House passed a spending bill that included a rider stipulating that Native American marijuana programs couldn’t be infringed upon by the Justice Department. And a GOP representative filed a bill in March that would provide similar protections.

GOP Senator Keeps Endorsing Medical Marijuana But Hasn’t Sponsored A Single Cannabis Bill

Photo elements courtesy of Pixabay and NorthEndWaterFront.com.

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