AUSTIN (Nexstar)— All Texans with cancer and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may soon have additional pain management options as Texas lawmakers consider changes to the state’s medical marijuana program.
Texas House Public Health Committee heard testimony on House Bill 1535, which would add more ailments to the list of qualifying conditions, create a research program to learn more about medicinal marijuana, and increase the percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol— the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana.
HB 1535 would add to the qualifying list all forms of cancer, people with acute and chronic pain, veterans with PTSD, and debilitating medical conditions defined by the state.
State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the public health committee, proposed the expansion. She authored the 2019 bill to grow the program created in 2015. Last session, the Texas Compassionate Use Program was expanded to include autism, multiple sclerosis and terminal cancer as qualifying conditions.
“I’ve always taken a scientific approach to the program, when more is known, then move the ball a little further down the road,” Klick said in an interview Wednesday.
Childhood cancer left Mike Thompson in bad shape. He underwent 75 surgeries, multiple bone marrow transplants and a 12-hour facial reconstruction surgery stemming from a diagnosis of myeloid leukemia when he was 10. After a 2003 surgery resulted in a damaged nerve, he told lawmakers he became addicted to pain medication.
“Not a day went by when I didn’t take a narcotic,” he testified.
Thompson, now 36, said his addiction could have been avoided if his doctors had the green light to prescribe him medical marijuana. He would qualify for medicinal cannabis if HB 1535 passes.
“I’m not able to use the tools that are available to me to best assist the patients in need,” Dr. Mary Caire of Dallas said.
In addition to the expanded conditions, HB 1535 raises the THC limit tenfold, from 0.5% to 5% by weight.
Some Texans argued 5% was not a high enough THC limit. Chase Bearden of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities said low THC limits lead to gastrointestinal issues.
“The carrier oil, and the other products inside there after you have to take too much creates GI problems,” Bearden said in his testimony.
The only legal forms of medical marijuana in Texas are lozenge or in CBD oil. Since the THC limit is low, patients have to consume large quantities of carrier oil, which is what makes up the other 99.5% of their medication.
The 2019 expansion was widely supported, but some lawmakers voiced concerns about medical use leading to expansions for other types of marijuana.
“I come at this with a highly guarded sense of danger of the direction that this might take us to a recreational use,” State Sen. Brian Birdwell said in 2019 during debate on the Senate floor.
House Speaker Dade Phelan said Wednesday he had not yet read Klick’s bill, which has 50 House co-authors and brings together some of the chamber’s most liberal and conservative members.
“I’ve supported such legislation in the past as a house member when I had a vote on the House floor,” he noted.
“Having family members who dealt with chronic illnesses, I see no reason why not to give a greater access to to a pharmaceutical— I will call it a pharmaceutical, it is a naturally grown pharmaceutical,” Phelan said. “But whether or not the House has full support of that, I don’t know.”
“We’ve done small steps each session I’ve been here on medicinal marijuana and that we may take another small step this time, I’m not certain,” he added.
Jason Walker, who served in the military for 20 years, testified the expansion should include more Texans who live with PTSD. The Army veteran with 20 years of military service would qualify under the new legislation, but argues anyone can get PTSD regardless of whether that person served in the military.
“We can all get PTSD because we can all be traumatized by things,” Walker said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees and regulates the Compassionate Use Program, did not respond to a request for information about the effects on the department of the potential expansion.
According to the agency, 1,108 patients were added by their physicians to the Compassionate Use Registry in the first 3 months of 2021. There were 4,919 patients in the system as of March, according to a DPS report. Similarly, 34 physicians were approved by the regulatory services division in the first three months of 2021 to prescribe low-THC cannabis through the program. DPS listed 286 physicians in Texas approved as of March 2021.
In Fiscal Year 2020, DPS had three active dispensing facilities on file. The agency received no complaints related to the program and conducted no investigations, a DPS report revealed.
Photojournalist Tim Holcomb contributed to this report.