Last month eventful for cannabis reform in Texas, as the House of Representatives approved three legislative proposals, which would expand the state's medical cannabis program, reduce penalties for concentrates and decriminalize possession.
The state's current medical cannabis program is limited to patients with the qualifying conditions: intractable epilepsy, terminal cancer, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, spasticity, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, autism or an incurable neurodegenerative disease; however, the House approved House Bill 1535 on April 28, which would expand the qualifying conditions in the program to include cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain, The Texas Tribune reported.
The bill would also permit the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to add additional qualifying conditions through administrative rulemaking, The Texas Tribune reported.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) recognizes Texas' current program as a “medical cannabidiol (CBD) program” rather than a proper medical cannabis program due to the program's emphasis on utilizing CBD over tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for medicinal use, according to The Texas Tribune.
Originally, H.B. 1535 would also have raised the THC limit in medical cannabis from 0.5% to 5% and make it possible for those in the program to access higher doses than what is currently available, but lawmakers recently lowered the THC limit from 5% to 1%.
The bill now heads back to the House for approval of the Senate-added amendments before moving to Gov. Greg Abbot.
Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, said while increasing the THC limit in medical cannabis is "a step in the right direction," it still hinders doctors from prescribing proper patient doses.
"There's an incredibly restrictive cap on THC," Fazio said. "Low levels of THC will work for some people, but it doesn't work for others. And so, what we think is that doctors need to be the ones making these decisions, not lawmakers."
Fazio also said that H.B. 1535 would help bring more patients to the medical cannabis program, as there are currently about 3,500 registered patients out of over two million people eligible; however, she expressed that the bill still "leaves patients behind who desperately need access to this medicine."
In addition to the state's medical cannabis program, lawmakers also passed two bills that would reduce the penalties for adult-use cannabis.
H.B. 2593 cleared the chamber by a 108-33 vote on April 28. The bill would slightly lower the penalties for possession of some cannabis concentrate and reduce the penalty for controlling up to 2 ounces of concentrates to a Class B misdemeanor, The Texas Tribune reported. The measure has now cleared the Senate and heads to the governor's desk for his signature.
And in an attempt to lower the criminal penalties for cannabis possession throughout Texas, the House passed H.B. 441 in an 88-40 vote on April 30, The Texas Tribune reported.
H.B. 441 would lower the possession of 1 ounce of cannabis or less in Texas from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor, which requires no jail time and is punishable by a fine of up to $500, the article states. The bill would prevent those who possess 1 ounce or less from losing their driving privileges or being arrested.
According to the article, a Class C misdemeanor would allow for record expungement and eliminate a person from acquiring a criminal record.
Fazio said the bill would help keep young people from suffering criminal consequences, as the penalties themselves have caused more harm than consuming cannabis ever could.
In 2019, the House approved a similar bill to reduce penalties for adult-use cannabis, but it was declared dead in the Senate; however, the interest from Texans to legalize adult-use cannabis has increased over the years, as 60% of respondents supported legalization—compared to 49% in 2014—according to the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune February 2021 polls.
"There's a significant shift happening now, and it's so wonderful to see," Fazio said. "To see the shift in the way that this issue is perceived, the seriousness that is given at the legislature and now increased support—it's very rewarding. It's such an exciting time to be an advocate."