For as long as I have lived in Texas, I’ve been a little critical, to say the very least, about the current state of cannabis law and our medical cannabis program, Texas Compassionate Use Program (CUP), but things may be changing in 2023. Two new bills are advancing through the state legislative process that would make it possible to expand the medical program more easily in the future, make medicating easier for patients and may even provide the opportunity for state-wide decriminalization.
House Bill 1805
The first of these bills gaining traction is HB 1805, introduced by Representative Stephanie Klick (R), of Fort Worth.
Passed by the House on April 12th with a vote of 121-23, this bill would add a couple of worthwhile changes to the current CUP, not least of which is increasing the legal limit of THC for medical cannabis products from 1% to a 10 milligram volumetric dose.
Under the current medical program, qualified physicians registered with the state are legally allowed to prescribe “low-THC” cannabis products to patients with qualifying conditions. The current legal definition of “low-THC” is 1% by weight. This restriction means that manufacturers of medical cannabis products currently must use carrier oils to dilute their products to the legal 1% THC limit, and patients may have to consume an inordinate amount to get effective results, which could cause gastrointestinal issues. If passed, this expansion to the medical program would increase the limit to no more than 10 milligrams “per dosage unit”. According to the bill, some patients have to buy a large supply of cannabis medicine to reach their prescribed dose, which can be “prohibitively expensive”, and increasing to a 10 mg max per dosage would hopefully reduce this cost.
Changing the state’s legal definition of “low-dose THC” to 10 mg will also allow for a wider array of effective medication options, like topicals and sublinguals, that may provide faster acting relief for those patients that don’t have time to chomp down a handful of 1% THC lozenges.
This bill, if passed by the Senate, would not only increase the THC limit, but may provide a viable alternative to opioids for patients with chronic pain. According to the wording of the bill, HB 1805 “would expand the conditions for which a physician could prescribe low-THC cannabis to include a condition causing chronic pain for which a physician would otherwise prescribe opioids.” This would not just expand the current list of qualifying conditions to include chronic pain, but also allows physicians to recommend an alternative to patients who otherwise may have been prescribed opioids.
According to a study published in 2019 that analyzed opioid prescription patterns and overdose deaths in Texas, approximately 17.7 million opioid prescriptions per year were dispensed from 2013 to 2017, averaging about 63.7 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. Though this was slightly less than the reported national average at the time, overdose deaths increased by 42%. Allowing physicians to suggest medical cannabis as a legal alternative to opioids may make a big difference. In the past, I’ve encountered a few people who would prefer a legal opioid prescription to manage their chronic pain over dealing with the possible legal ramifications of obtaining non-medical cannabis for the same reason. By expanding the list of qualifying conditions to include these patients, we may see a decrease in opioid misuse and opioid related overdose deaths, simply by introducing an alternative that can’t kill you if you take too much.
Last but certainly not least, Representative Klick’s bill would allow the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to “designate by rule” medical conditions that are considered debilitating. What this means is that the DSHS would have the flexibility to allow for medical cannabis to be recommended for other “serious medical issues that arise without having to return the issue to the Legislature.” As of late, each expansion of CUPs qualifying conditions has had to make it all the way through the legislative process, and this change would streamline this process in the future.
As I write this, HB1805 is on its way to the Senate and if passed, would go into effect September 1st, 2023.
House Bill 218
In March 2023, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee voted 9-0 in favor of Representative Joe Moody’s (D) HB 218 to decriminalize cannabis possession in Texas, as well as providing people with prior cannabis convictions the opportunity to have those records expunged.
Right now, possession of any amount of cannabis in the state is a Class B misdemeanor. If you have a couple of grams on you and a cop finds out about it, you could face up to 180 days in jail and/or fines of up to $2,000. It’s even worse if they catch you with concentrates. Any amount of cannabis concentrates is an automatic felony, with a minimum jail time of between 180 days to two years. If passed, HB 218 would reduce possession of up to an ounce of cannabis or cannabis concentrates to a Class C misdemeanor, with no required jail time and a maximum fine of $500. Two ounces or less, but more than one ounce, would still be a Class B misdemeanor, however the officer “may not arrest the person and shall issue the person a citation”.
Rep. Moody’s bill, if passed, would also provide an avenue for people with past cannabis convictions (possession of up to two ounces), to apply for expungement. This would happen through a court process, where those applying would have to meet certain requirements and pay a $30 fee.
Many local city governments across Texas have already been enacting decriminalization efforts on a local level. Prop A in Austin passed in May of 2022, which prohibits Austin police from “issuing any citations or making any arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses” as well as banning no-knock warrants, while five other cities - Denton, Elgin, Harker Heights, Killeen and San Marcos - passed cannabis decriminalization ballot measures in November of last year.
As exciting as the prospect of statewide decriminalization is, similar measures from 2019 and 2021 that passed the House vote died in the Senate with opposition from Lt. Governor Dan Patrick (R).
HB 218 is currently in the House Calendars Committee waiting to be scheduled for floor action.
How Do Texans Feel?
With as much pushback as cannabis reform laws get from certain Republican lawmakers, polls have shown that a majority of Texans are in favor of cannabis reform throughout the state. A University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll released in December of 2022 showed that four out of five Texas voters support legalizing cannabis for medical or adult use, and 72% are in favor of decriminalization. Only 17% of voters polled were in favor of total prohibition.
Now, I absolutely don’t speak for all Texans. Hell, there are probably a bunch I’ve pissed off by even considering myself one of them. What I can say is that it appears that a majority of voters are in favor of statewide cannabis reform, and that includes the possibility of decriminalization and legalization for medical and adult-use cannabis.
As slow as cannabis reform progress may be in Texas at the moment, it does seem steady, and the future of cannabis in Texas seems a little brighter.