Lawmaker hopes 6th time's the charm for medical marijuana bill


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on January 23, 2013 at 7:13 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 23 at 7:21 PM

AUSTIN -- The 83rd Texas Legislature reconvened Wednesday with little fanfare. 
Many lawmakers spent the weeklong absence filing bills. One of them is HB 594, a law which would carve a legal foothold for medical marijuana sponsored by State Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin). 
"This bill does not legalize marijuana or anything," Naishtat said. "It creates an affirmative defense so if you have a bona fide medical condition and a doctor has suggested that you try marijuana for medicinal purposes, if you get arrested you can go before a judge and you can say 'look at me your honor, I'm not a criminal. I have multiple sclerosis, I'm in a wheelchair' or 'I have AIDS,' and the judge could  say 'go home.'"    
The policy is aimed at patients like Vincent Lopez, diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at the age of 17 and racked by constant pain. Lopez became an advocate for medical marijuana after trying several legal prescription drugs which he said only made him feel worse.
"It seems to stimulate appetite. It seems to alleviate my spasms, alleviate my muscle stiffness, alleviate the pain throughout my back that I feel daily," Lopez told KVUE in December.
For the last two years, Lopez has volunteered as patient outreach director for the Texas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Since the 1930s film "Reefer Madness" portrayed marijuana users as dangerous and psychopathic, the U.S. government has consistently held marijuana to be a dangerous narcotic in the same category as heroin and cocaine. 
"It causes harm because it's young people that are using it," U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief administrator Michele Leonhart told a congressional panel in June 2012.
Those opposed to relaxing marijuana laws have cited the view that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that leads to use of other more deadly drugs.
While marijuana is illegal under federal law, 18 states allow for some form of medical use. In November, the states of Washington and Colorado decriminalized recreational use as well.
Health care professionals in Texas remain cautious on the subject of marijuana for medicinal use.
"Marijuana is illegal in Texas," the Texas Medical Association responded in a statement to KVUE Wednesday. "However TMA policy supports the physician’s right to discuss with his or her patients any and all possible treatment options related to the patient’s health and clinical care (including the use of marijuana) without the threat to physician or patient of regulatory, disciplinary, or criminal sanctions. TMA also calls for further well-controlled scientific studies of the use of marijuana with seriously-ill patients who may benefit from such alternative treatment."
Support for Naishtat's proposal could potentially come from growing libertarian leanings among Texas conservatives.
One Texas House Republican KVUE spoke with called current federal marijuana policy "government overreach" and the large scale incarceration of those convicted of marijuana possession a waste of state resources. While he said he doesn't encourage breaking the law or irresponsible behavior, he told KVUE he'd be open to a discussion about easing certain penalties and restrictions. 
"I've tried a few times, I'm not giving up on this," said Naishtat, optimistic despite five previously unsuccessful attempts to pass similar legislation. "Two states have legalized marijuana, Washington and Colorado. I think there's much more of a chance that we'll see some progress this session."  
At least one other lawmaker has filed marijuana-related legislation this session as well.
Sponsored by State Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston), HB 184 would reduce the penalty for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class C misdemeanor. The bill would decrease the current maximum penalty from 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine to a $500 fine with no jail time.