A majority of Texans support legalizing cannabis, according to a February poll from the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

A bill to expand Texas’ medical marijuana program started moving in the Senate. Advocates worry time is running out.

With less than two weeks left in Texas’ legislative session, an effort to expand the state’s medical marijuana program gained new life on Thursday after weeks of outcry from advocates who said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was blocking the proposal.

The Texas House voted 134-12 last month to send House Bill 1535 to the state Senate, where it languished in a legislative purgatory for more than two weeks. Patrick on Thursday referred the proposal to the Senate State Affairs Committee. But the bill still faces significant hurdles. It must advance out of committee and receive approval from the full Senate by Wednesday, the last day the Senate can take up bills.

HB 1535, by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, would expand the state’s medical cannabis program to include those with chronic pain, all cancer patients and Texans with post-traumatic stress disorder. It would also authorize the Department of State Health Services to add additional qualifying conditions through administrative rulemaking. Current law requires the Legislature to pass a bill to expand eligibility.

Patrick, who leads the Senate, has the final say on which bills are considered and to which committees they’ll be referred. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s difficult to come up with any explanation that makes sense as to why the lieutenant governor would block this legislation,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. She added that the legislation is a “carefully crafted and moderate expansion” with wide bipartisan backing. Fazio said state Sens. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, who are both doctors, have voiced support for HB 1535.

Spokespeople for Schwertner and Campbell did not respond to requests for comment.

Nick Etten, founder of the Veterans Cannabis Project, said in a statement that the medical marijuana expansion would provide “a vital lifeline to military veterans.”

“Texas has a long history of supporting our veterans,” Etten said. “But when it comes to giving them the tools to fight their pain and trauma, Texas falls short of other states and must do better, starting today.”

The bill would also allow for medical cannabis sold in Texas to contain up to 5% tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient that produces a high. Current law caps the amount of THC in medical marijuana at 0.5%, slightly more than what’s allowed under state and federal laws for cannabidiol. CBD, derived from hemp, contains only traces of the psychoactive compounds found in cannabis and is often used for pain relief.

Earlier this week, a Texas Senate committee advanced a proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis. House Bill 2593 would reduce the penalty for possessing up to an ounce of marijuana to a class C misdemeanor with no possibility of jail time. That measure is poised for a vote on the Senate floor.

Patrick in 2019 raised reservations about a similar medical marijuana program expansion. A Patrick spokesperson told The Texas Tribune at the time that 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.”

Despite Patrick’s opposition, a clear majority of Texans support legalizing cannabis. A February poll from the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune found that 60% of Texans said possession of small or large amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal, and only 13% said it shouldn’t be legal for any use. The rest would allow it “for medical purposes only.”

Medical marijuana advocates and industry leaders had hoped to capitalize on the growing support this legislative session to overhaul a system that they say is riddled with strict rules, red tape and burdensome barriers. The many shortcomings have left the program largely inaccessible to those it was intended to help, they said.

There were only about 3,500 medical marijuana patients in Texas as of January. Advocates say about 2 million people are eligible based on current law.

Forty-seven states have legalized cannabis in some capacity, but Texas’ onerous restrictions put it in the bottom 11 in terms of accessibility, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Author: SHAWN MULCAHYThe Texas Tribune

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