Five years after Texas legalized medical marijuana for people with debilitating illnesses, advocates and industry experts say the state’s strict rules, red tape, and burdensome barriers to entry have left the program largely inaccessible to those it was intended to help.
But with a new legislative session gaveling in next month, some Texas lawmakers see an opportunity to fix the state’s medical cannabis program — known as the Compassionate Use Program — by further expanding eligibility and loosening some restrictions so Texas’ laws more closely resemble those of other states that allow the treatment.
There are 3,519 Texans registered with the state to use medical marijuana, though advocates say 2 million people are eligible based on current law.
Texas’ program pales in overall participation and scope compared with other states: It has fewer enrolled patients and businesses than most other states with medical marijuana programs. At least some form of medical marijuana is legal in 47 states nationwide, but Texas’ restrictions put it in the bottom 11 in terms of accessibility, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“We’re pretty dang close to the bottom. We’re pretty far behind,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, referring to how access to Texas’ medical marijuana program fares compared with other states. Menéndez will push legislation in the next session to further expand the program.
Oklahoma, home to 25 million fewer people than Texas, has more than 100 times as many registered patients who can access medical marijuana. This December, two years after the passage of Oklahoma’s medical cannabis program, there were 365,464 people enrolled. To the east, Louisiana, with a fifth of Texas’ population, had 4,350 patients in 2019, and to the west, New Mexico had enrolled more than 82,000 people in its program as of the same year.
Industry experts say Texas’ narrowly designed program is also hindering a market that could help drive Texas’ economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Here’s this … billion dollar bird’s nest that’s sitting on the South Lawn of the Capitol, waiting for the right legislator to come pick it up and take it inside, and to present it to the other legislators and say, ‘Here you go. Here’s a way for us to … [help] our citizens,”’ said Morris Denton, CEO of Compassionate Cultivation, one of the state’s three licensed medical cannabis businesses, at this year’s Texas Marijuana Policy Conference in November.
The business costs in Texas associated with the medical marijuana industry are sky high. At the same time, advocates and business leaders already in the market complain the state has one of the most restrictive caps on the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that makes people feel high — that medical cannabis products are legally allowed to contain. Only six states that allow medical marijuana have THC caps lower than Texas’, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The program is so limited that the National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws doesn’t recognize it as a true medical marijuana program. Instead, the group labels Texas a “medical CBD” state for its emphasis on cannabidiol — derived from hemp and containing only traces of the psychoactive compounds found in cannabis — over THC for medicinal use.
Jax Finkel, executive director for Texas NORML, said the reason Texas is often not considered a true medical marijuana state is because it caps medical cannabis at 0.5% THC, and over-the-counter hemp products are capped at 0.3%. That means people who get prescriptions from their doctors and pay for medical marijuana would be getting a product that has only marginally more THC than a CBD-oil or tincture purchased at a local store.