How medical marijuana met its end in Texas
A bill can be killed any number of ways, including through obstruction, feet dragging, amendment, or procedure. In the case of a medical marijuana bill in Texas, despite having enough support to pass, the paperwork just didn’t arrive in time.
House Bill 2107 would have given a number of patients access to whole plant medical marijuana. Filed by Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) and co-authored by Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs), support for the bill was bi-partisan.
During the Texas GOP’s 2016 state convention, delegates voted in favor of supporting medical marijuana and it is officially in the party’s platform. Republicans currently hold 95 seats in the Texas House of Representatives, and at one point during the session, this part of the platform was distributed to the office of every Republican.
A group called Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism (MAMMA) was a fixture at the capitol during the 2017, 85th legislative session. Parents of children with various forms of autism, they met with staffers and legislators, and likely made a large impact on the number of lawmakers who became sympathetic to the cause of medical cannabis. At one point both Rep. Lucio and Rep. Isaac praised the group from the floor of the House for their hard work.
At one point a family made the front page of the Dallas Morning News about treating their daughter who has autism and cerebral palsy with vaporized marijuana. The next week activists delivered that edition of the paper to the office of every state lawmaker.
Veterans also visited the capitol, and delivered a press conference urging lawmakers to pass a medical marijuana law.
Various polls taken in recent years show support for medical marijuana among Texans at over 70 percent, and over 80 percent nationally.
Despite this, HB 2107 was not heard in committee until exactly a week before the deadline to have all legislation scheduled for a hearing and vote by the full House. It also took thousands of emails and phone calls to make the hearing happen.
After an emotional hearing on Tuesday which lasted until nearly 2:00 am, a surge of legislators signed on in support of the bill. Out of the House’s 150 members, 77 decided that the bill and those it would help was worth supporting; this meant there were enough votes to pass the legislation.
This support did not come without concessions however.
Patients lost the ability to grow their plants at home, something which would greatly affect those who have financial hardships or issues traveling. Other clauses were removed from the bill as well, including “protection of parental rights for those using or administering medical cannabis; protects patients from being charged with paraphernalia; caps licensing fees at $5,000.” There was also a clause added which says cannabis must be administered by a means other than smoking.
Shortly after the hearing, legislators began receiving an overwhelming amount of emails and phone calls urging them to vote on the bill before it was too late. On Friday the bill was voted on and passed out of the Public Health Committee on a 7-2 vote. From there it was sent to the Calendars Committee, who decides when and if bills passed out of committee are heard by the full House.
In 2015, a similar bill was left to die in committee by then-chair, former Rep. Myra Crownover (R-Denton), as she refused to hold a vote on the legislation. Despite voting against HB 2107, Public Health Committee Chair Four Price (R-Amarillo) allowed a vote to take place.
Heather Fazio with Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, a coalition group who has had a constant presence at the state capitol this year, say’s that while Rep. Price did not initially see HB 2107 as a priority, or even something he needed to act on, he might have had a change of heart.
“After the outstanding testimony provided by witnesses at the hearing, I think his heart and mind were opened,” Fazio states. “He still wasn’t ready to vote for the bill himself, but he was attentive during the hearing and demonstrated exceptional character when he allowed the bill to be voted on by the committee.”
On Monday all eyes were on the Calendars Committee as they met to schedule legislation. A flurry of bill numbers were called and approved for the House schedule, but HB 2107 was not one of the bills announced. It would soon be learned that the committee had not yet received the paperwork needed to officially schedule the bill.
A deadline approached on Tuesday night at 10:00 pm for the Calendars Committee to schedule any additional legislation. At 5:30 Tuesday afternoon, the Calendars Committee met once more, but the paperwork still had not arrived, and would not for another hour and a half. By that time the committee had already met and was not scheduled to meet again that day. This effectively killed any chance of HB 2107 being heard and voted on by the House.
Rep. Isaac did make a final effort to call the Calendar Committee to a meeting from the floor of the House Tuesday night, however his motion was ruled out of order.
Analysis of bill movement this session indicates that the paperwork for HB 2107 moved at a normal pace from the Public Health Committee to the Calendars Committee through the Committee Coordinator. The average amount of time is three business days, though it is unknown if paperwork arriving at such a late time in the day is typical. There was also no unusual delay in convening a meeting for a vote on the bill after the hearing.
Opposition to the bill primarily consisted of pain management doctors with the Texas Pain Society, addiction treatment employees, and the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.
A companion bill in the Senate, SB 269, never gained any traction due to gridlock. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has essentially locked down the Senate in order to focus on his own agenda of legislation. Unlike other states, the lieutenant governor in Texas controls what and when the state senate does.
The next opportunity to pass legislation will come in 2019 when the Texas legislature meets again. Lawmakers meet every other year, typically from January through May.
Until a medical marijuana bill is passed, many will either have to continue breaking the law, or if they can afford it, move to another state where they can receive treatment. For those people, this legislative session did not feel like a win, however in several ways, a lot of was accomplished.
Jax Finkel, Executive Director of Texas NORML, lobbied at the capitol for the entire session to help see HB 2107 through.
“While it may not feel like it in the moment, we have actually experienced some wins in Texas,” Finkel says. “We have our first ever official vote for whole plant cannabis access. We had a record setting 70 plus legislators which included 28 Republicans and 4 of the 5 doctors in the House. And importantly, we have made this a substantive campaign topic. This is monumental groundwork that we must take full advantage of in the upcoming cycle. We must be ever diligent.”
Keeping current sponsors and gaining new ones will be the goal for activists between now and the next session. “The leadership we’ve seen across the state from lawmakers and advocates alike is remarkable. Marijuana law reform is a real issue in Texas now,” Fazio adds. “We will continue working throughout the interim to build relationships, educate legislators, and prepare for our next opportunity to change Texas’ outdated laws.”
Until then, there are already 29 states which have passed medical marijuana laws, with more likely to follow suit. This could put several legislators on the hot seat during their primaries in 2018. Several elected officials who spoke out against medical marijuana during the 2015 legislative session drew the ire of many Texans who vowed to campaign for and donate to their opponents. Many of those officials are no longer in office.
Patients may still have some recourse in House Bill 81, which was scheduled by the Calendars Committee at the final moment. It reduces the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana to a $250 fine for the first three offenses. This bill is expected to be heard on Thursday, and activists in Austin are encouraging people to contact their representative and ask that they support HB 81.