A Texas House committee on Wednesday approved a bill to significantly expand the state’s medical marijuana program.
It’s been a busy week for cannabis reform in the legislature, where multiple panels have taken up proposals ranging from decriminalizing marijuana to establishing regulations for the state’s hemp market.
The medical cannabis legislation, HB 1535, unanimously passed the House Public Health Committee in a 11-0 vote.
Sponsored by Chairwoman Stephanie Klick (R), the bill would add cancer, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (for veterans only) as conditions that could qualify people for the state’s limited medical cannabis program.
It would further allow the Department of State Health Services to add more qualifying conditions via administrative rulemaking. And it would also raise the THC cap for medical marijuana products from 0.5 percent to five percent.
Finally, the measure would establish “institutional review boards” that would be tasked with helping to promote research into medical cannabis and review how the program is impacting patients.
Advocates celebrated the bill’s passage, though they hoped it would’ve been amended to allow doctors determine which patients would benefit from cannabis regardless of their health condition, remove any THC cap, allow testing of marijuana products by independent laboratories and provide explicit legal physician and patient protections.
Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy said that despite the lack of committee revisions, “our representatives will have a chance to make amendments on the floor and senators can amend it later in the process.”
It’s unusual for the committee to have taken testimony and voted on the proposal in the same day. Several bills to decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana were debated in a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, for example, but no action was taken.
Meanwhile, legislation that would make certain changes to the state’s hemp program, including imposing rules related to the transportation and testing of consumable hemp products, is being heard in the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee on Thursday.
The legislative session in Texas ends on May 31, giving lawmakers just weeks to move any piece of legislation through committee and onto the floors of each chamber to potentially be sent to the governor’s desk. But advocates have been working diligently to ensure that the issue isn’t ignored, regardless of unrelated challenges the state is facing with respect to the pandemic and an ice storm that recently shut down the power grid.
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And while the legislature has historically resisted cannabis reform, there are signs that this session may be different.
House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) said during a Texas Young Republicans event last month that while he wouldn’t be able to distinguish marijuana from oregano, he said, “I understand the issue.”
The speaker said that he voted for a limited medical cannabis legalization bill during his freshman year in the legislature, and his support for the reform is partly based on the fact that he has a “sister with severe epilepsy, and small amounts of CBD oil makes a big difference in people’s lives.”
Phelan also noted that he was a “joint author—no pun intended” of cannabis decriminalization legislation last session.
“I was able to go back home and explain it, and it wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “To me, it’s a reasonable criminal justice reform issue.”
Texans’ support for legalizing marijuana has grown significantly over the past decade, according to a poll released last month.
Sixty percent of state voters now back making cannabis legal “for any use,” the University of Texas and Texas Tribune survey found. That compares to just 42 percent who said the same back in 2010.
Leaders in both chambers of the legislature have recently indicated that they anticipate more modest proposals to be taken up and potentially approved this session, particularly as it concerns expanding the state’s limited medical cannabis program.
Phelan said he thinks “the House will look at” reform measures this year, including bills to legalize for adult use. He said the lawmakers will likely “review those again, and some will get traction, some will not.” However, the Senate remains an obstacle for comprehensive reform.
Legislators in the state prefiled more than a dozen pieces of cannabis legislation ahead of the new session. That includes bills that would legalize recreational marijuana, allow high-THC cannabis for medical use and decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana.
That said, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), who presides over the Senate, has killed prior efforts to enact reform in the state, raising questions about the prospects of far-reaching changes advancing in the chamber. After the House approved a cannabis decriminalization bill in 2019, he was was quick to declare the proposal dead in the Senate.