Texas marijuana advocates call for expanding medical use law

Following new marijuana laws being approved by voters in eight states, cannabis advocates are readying for another run at the Texas Legislature early next year.

The Lone Star debate will likely coalesce around medical marijuana, according to both proponents and critics of more permissive weed laws. The most high-profile advocates say they will try to expand a law passed last year that allows doctors to prescribe low-THC cannabis oil to children with epilepsy. That law, according to many marijuana advocates, was larded up with administrative difficulties while keeping cannabis off-limits to cancer patients and those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain.

Advocacy groups are already emphasizing the role that doctor-prescribed marijuana could play for veterans suffering the lingering effects of various war traumas. Full recreational use of marijuana, “though worth discussing,” probably doesn’t have a realistic shot at legislative approval, said Heather Fazio, Texas political director of the Marijuana Policy Project.

“This week’s election results were monumental,” Fazio said. “We now have 28 states – 198 million people – with access to marijuana recommended by a doctor.”

RELATED:Up to half of minor pot charges dismissed in urban Texas cities

Texas remains a conservative state, however. The Sheriffs’ Association of Texas is among those readying opposition, arguing that the fiscal benefits of marijuana legalization are overblown and the social consequences underreported.

Jackson County Sheriff A.J. Louderback, the association’s legislative director, said its membership is open to conversations about marijuana that has little or no THC, the psychoactive constituent of cannabis. But Louderback said medical marijuana is simply a way to push closer to full recreational use. He said that, in light of the law approved last year, the association considers “medical marijuana to be settled” with no further law changes needed, adding that “if you’re going to add THC (to legal strains of marijuana), we are going to oppose it.”

“Do we need to add another way for the public to get high?” Louderback said.

The consumption issue comes to the Legislature alongside the question of how harshly to punish those caught in possession of marijuana. An array of organizations, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Texas Association of Business, want lawmakers to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Their arguments range from the cost of enforcement to the quality job applicants who are cut from consideration due to a criminal conviction.

It is unclear how Gov. Greg Abbott would react to a decriminalization bill, if the Legislature approves one.

A spokesman for Abbott noted in August that the governor said last year that, while approving the law that allows for marijuana to treat epilepsy, he continues to think the drug should be illegal in Texas.

Another question is which lawmakers will champion changes in marijuana laws. State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, returns as a reform advocate. But three other state lawmakers who pushed marijuana-related proposals in the past are gone: Republican Sen. Kevin Eltife, the sponsor of the law that passed last session, has retired; longtime marijuana champion Rep. Elliott Naishtat, an Austin Democrat, is also retiring; and Republican Rep. Joe Simpson, who introduced a bill to legalize recreational use, lost a race for state Senate earlier this year.

Under the law approved last year, the Texas Compassionate Use Act, dispensaries will begin opening in early 2017, Fazio said. This is another issue marijuana advocates say they want to revisit. John Poss, the CEO of GrowBlox Sciences Inc., a company that researches and sells strains of medical cannabis, said the Department of Public Safety has undermined the law and hamstrung companies by enacting unreasonable fees.

The key licensing fee was raised from $6,000 to $1.3 million. In addition, only three companies should be licensed, according to DPS leadership. The feesare necessary partly because each of those companies must have DPS troopers on site at all times “based on security and safety concerns,” according to the DPS.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Poss said of the DPS concerns. “It’s much ado about nothing.”