Texas is just a Greg Abbott signature away from approving a medical marijuana bill that will be hard to fulfill but is viewed as a positive step toward marijuana legislation.
On May 18, the Texas State House voted 96-34 in favor of Senate Bill 339, which allows patients with intractable seizure conditions to access a marijuana extract containing high levels of cannabidiol, or CBD, and only trace levels of THC.
SB 339 previously passed the Senate on May 7. It now heads to Gov. Abbott, who has until June 16 to sign off.
"While the bill does not provide for full-scale medical marijuana, it is an important first step," Espinosa says.
Although marijuana advocates welcome the bill, it's seen as flawed because it requires doctors to engage in conduct that is prohibited by federal law.
"On a certain level, the legislature should be commended for acknowledging the medical value of marijuana, and it is a historic vote in that sense," says Heather Fazio, Texas political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "[But] lawmakers missed several opportunities to amend the bill in ways that could have provided real relief to countless Texans. Not a single patient will be helped by this legislation."
SB 339 requires doctors to prescribe marijuana to patients, but prescribing exposes doctors to federal criminal sanctions.
In other states where marijuana is legal, doctors only "recommend" medical marijuana or "certify" patients to use medical marijuana. Unlike prescriptions, "recommendations" and "certifications" are federally legal and protected under the First Amendment.
Texas is not the only state with a "flawed" bill. There are 14 states — including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Utah and even Wisconsin — that have adopted similar laws, allowing limited access to products containing CBD. But 23 other states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive medical marijuana laws that actually work.
"Nearly half of the states in the country have effectively implemented medical marijuana programs, and I have no doubt Texas could adopt an even better one," Fazio says.
Another flaw in the bill is that it allows for extracts with very little THC. Some seizure patients say that a higher ratio of THC is necessary to effectively reduce the frequency and severity of seizures.
The bill also fails to allow access to any medical marijuana products for people suffering from other debilitating conditions, such as PTSD, cancer and multiple sclerosis, for which medical marijuana has been found to have significant medical benefits.
Despite SB 339's limitations, advocates such as the Marijuana Policy Project and Progress Texas support Abbott's signing it into law. In some states, it has taken up to three years to implement marijuana laws, between the operation of dispensaries, the application process, finding locations, building facilities and starting cultivation.
"Even if doctors are unwilling to 'prescribe' marijuana, starting the implementation process will ensure a system of safe access is ready to go when the legislature meets in 2017 — at which point it can fix the flaw and expand access to patients with other serious conditions," Fazio says.
Progress Texas director Ed Espinoza says he's encouraged, because the bill has received strong support from a bipartisan majority. "While the bill does not provide for full-scale medical marijuana, it is an important first step," Espinosa says.