AUSTIN - The latest polls show voters are poised to legalize marijuana in all five states with initiatives on the ballot this November. For marijuana advocates in Texas and elsewhere, the new year could begin with the wind strongly at their backs.
Texas passed its first "compassionate use" law in 2015, which allowed marijuana-based oil to treat intractable epilepsy. The Texas law restricts use to a special strain high in the chemical cannabidiol (CBD) and low in the psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It was a tiny measure compared to medical marijuana laws in other states, but the bill's endorsement by Texas' rock-ribbed Republican leadership marked a political sea change.
One of the state's most high-profile advocates, ten-year-old Alexis Bortell suffered from terrible seizures before moving to Colorado to take advantage of the state's medical marijuana law. Parents Dean and Liza explained her first medical marijuana prescription was similar to the low-THC kind now legal in Texas.
"It was better than pharmaceuticals," Dean Bortell told KVUE. "We got 33 days and then she had a pretty bad seizure, not as bad as she had in Texas, but enough that the doctor said, 'You know what? Let's go ahead and push up the THC.' And now we're 573 days seizure-free today. So it's which is the greater good?"
The Bortells say they need a "whole plant" policy to be able to return to Texas. It's a complaint many medical marijuana patients expressed during the debate on the "CBD-only" bill passed by the Eighty-fourth Texas Legislature, and one they hope to rectify in the upcoming legislative session.
Big changes are already on the way in several other states. This November, Massachusetts, Arizona, California, Maine and Nevada are poised to legalize marijuana completely.
"It's an exciting time," said Marijuana Policy Project Texas political director Heather Fazio. "Win, lose or draw, we're going to see a historic night on election night here in the United States. And here in Texas, what that translates to is momentum."
"We haven't really stopped working since the last legislative session," said Fazio. "With the passage of the compassionate use act and now the rules being rolled out by the Department of Public Safety, we see a lot on the horizon. And patients want to see this program made more inclusive so that those with cancer, PTSD, multiple sclerosis, debilitating conditions like that have access to this medicine."
The business opportunities created by the proliferation of states relaxing marijuana restrictions have captured the interests of a whole generation of entrepreneurs. Yet slow movement at the federal level has made it difficult for state industries to fully flourish.
"When the federal government doesn't let you take tax deductions, when you can't go to your neighborhood bank and get a checking account, when you can't process credit cards, it keeps the industry in that grey area," said KIND Financial CEO David Dinenberg. "We all strive every day for this industry to grow up, become mainstream and become truly legitimate, and I wake up every day trying to solve those problems."
The California-based business offers compliance solutions for a budding industry, which is being actively monitored, state-by-state. "The states are all looking at each other and taking the best points of each law and trying to create a very robust regulatory market, which is important," explained Dinenberg. "Colorado just enacted labeling on all the edibles. Nevada was really the first state to have mandatory lab testing."
It adds up to big business: Providing more than $100 million in annual tax revenue in Colorado alone.
"The job creation's real. The tax revenue's real," said Dinenberg. "But the access to the medicine is the most important thing."
That's why Dean Bortell argues, "Let the doctors run the show."
"It's a medical decision. It's different for every patient," said Bortell. "So for the legislators to sit down there without a medical license, most of them, and tell us what our doctor has to prescribe our children, it just doesn't make a lot of sense."
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