What Does the Future Hold for Texas’ Medical Marijuana Program?

What Does the Future Hold for Texas’ Medical Marijuana Program?

Marijuana Policy Project’s Heather Fazio and Compassionate Cultivation’s Morris Denton weigh in on the state’s Compassionate Use Act.

October 16, 2017

The first dispensing organization has been licensed to participate in Texas’ medical marijuana program, and two others have been conditionally approved, but as businesses and physicians begin readying for medical sales, some wonder if patient access will be limited.

Cansortium Texas has been issued a license to operate as of the Sept. 1 deadline, while Surterra and Compassionate Cultivation have been conditionally approved for licenses. Registration applications from physicians are still being accepted.

Texas MMJ: Existing, But Lacking

The Texas Compassionate Use Act was enacted in 2015 and required the state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) to create a registry of doctors who can treat intractable epilepsy with prescribed medical marijuana and license by Sept. 1 at least three dispensing organizations that can grow, process and dispense cannabis to patients, according to the DPS website.

Only about 410 doctors in Texas have the necessary credentials to participate in the program under the state’s requirements, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), and those who wish to get involved must go through training and register with regulators. In addition, state law requires doctors to prescribe medical marijuana instead of recommending it, which is illegal under federal law. Further, intractable epilepsy is the only qualifying condition, and many other patients who suffer from cancer, PTSD and more will not be able to participate in the program.

“While it is a program that we didn’t necessarily support when it was going through the legislature—we favored a more inclusive program—it was groundbreaking when it passed,” said MPP’s Texas Political Director Heather Fazio.

Fazio said the program only allows access to low-THC cannabis, and many patients with intractable epilepsy need THC to control their seizures.

“[For] several of the families who have left Texas for access to cannabis in other legal states with their loved one, usually a child, who has intractable epilepsy, … it’s not going to bring them home because they’re using THC in their medicine,” she said. “From our perspective, it’s really not going far enough to help patients, but it is exciting that it’s happening.”

Fazio said when the DPS released its first set of regulations, it estimated that it would license 12 dispensing organizations to meet market demand, but after a crackdown by the governor’s office, it ultimately decided to issue a minimum of three licenses.

Fazio’s main concern lies with the section of the law that requires physicians to prescribe cannabis rather than recommend it , as in the other 29 states where medical cannabis has been legalized. Since cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, doctors cannot legally write a prescription for it under federal law, as it could be viewed as aiding and abetting a federal crime. They can, however, recommend its use to patients without legal repercussions.

“Doctors can’t prescribe a Schedule I drug,” she said. “They can recommend it, though. With the law the way that it is, [it] means that a doctor would be jeopardizing their livelihood … and potentially setting themselves up for criminal liability when it comes to writing a prescription.”

Fazio said she hopes the state will eventually change the law to protect doctors so they feel comfortable participating in the program. There is momentum in the state for broader regulations, she said, and she hopes once the program rolls out and the dispensing organizations start medical sales, change will come.

Becoming a Licensed Dispensary

Compassionate Cultivation is to become one of Texas’ three dispensing organizations, bringing together a Texas-based team to provide the medication patients need, according to the company’s CEO Morris Denton.

“We’re a Texas-born, Texas-bred, Texas-grown company,” Denton said. “We came together at the end of 2016, basically to put our partnership together in order to go pursue an application.”

The Compassionate Cultivation team includes a Colorado-based cultivator; a processing, testing and extracting company, also based in Colorado; a security team from Austin and a chief medical officer who is a board-certified pediatric neurologist, Denton said.

“We just put together this team to go pursue what we thought was an opportunity to be a part of history in the state of Texas,” he said.

The company is just days away from receiving its final license to be one of the state’s three dispensing organizations, Denton said.

He said he has received interest from both advocacy groups and patients, some of whom have left the Texas to use medical cannabis and who are eager to have medicine available in their home state.

Looking to the future of Texas’ program, Denton said one of the largest challenges will be education.

“The more people know about what this medicine does, the more quickly they’re willing to embrace it and participate,” he said.

“We’re seeing legislators understanding that folks in their district, people just like them, are looking at cannabis as an alternative to dangerous and addictive pharmaceutical drugs, and our work over the last three years has been making sure that they know that, making sure they’re hearing from people in their districts, making sure the advocates have the right messaging, have the confidence to go in and talk to a lawmaker or their staff,” Fazio added. “We’re going to continue doing that in the interim. Our next opportunity to change the law is [the next legislative session in] 2019. ”

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