Lawmakers Reject Medical Marijuana Protection for Patients

Despite emotional pleas from seriously ill and their caregivers

By Jordan Smith, 12:49PM, Thu. May. 9, 2013

Lawmakers Reject Medical Marijuana Protection for Patients
Illustration by Craig Staggs

A conservative measure that would have created an affirmative defense to prosecution for pot possession for seriously ill Texas patients has died in a House committee without being called up for a vote.

House Bill 594, by Austin Democratic Rep. Elliott Naishtat, would allow patients suffering from a bona fide illness who use marijuana for medical purposes an affirmative defense to prosecution for possession. The measure would also protect doctors who discuss pot with patients, or who recommend to them use of medicinal marijuana. The bill would not legalize medicinal marijuana as has been done in 18 other states and Washington, D.C.

Lawmakers on the House Public Health Committee appeared sympathetic to the pleas of patients and caregivers who offered emotional testimony in favor of the bill during a May 1 hearing. No one registered or testified against the measure.

Nonetheless, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, declined to call the bill up for vote by the whole committee, signaling that the measure didn't have enough votes to be passed to the House floor for consideration. With the deadline for House bills to receive initial consideration on the floor just hours away – midnight tonight – the bill has died. This is the fifth time in as many sessions that the bill has failed to move. (Indeed, the news angered many bill backers; at least one posted to Facebook a snapshot of Kolkhorst's campaign contributions, noting a string of sizable donations made by large pharmaceutical interests.)

Naishtat was disappointed by the news. This is only the second time in a decade that the bill has even received a hearing. The last time the bill was poised to move it got the favorable nod from a different committee, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which is where bills effecting the criminal code often go. (Consider another affirmative defense bill filed this year, HB 1743 by Dallas Dem Eric Johnson, a measure that would protect drug users who report overdose incidents to police, which got a 9-0 nod from that committee.)

Why Naishtat's bill has repeatedly been sent to Public Health is unclear. Naishtat said he has no idea why his measure has been relegated there, but said that despite his disappointment over the bill's death in committee, he remains encouraged, not only that the bill has finally been heard, but also that lawmakers appear "much more sensitive to the need for this legislation" than they have been in the past, he said. "This has put us on a new path with regard to medical marijuana."

Indeed, Naishtat said that in conversations with colleagues after the hearing he was encouraged to hear that the testimony had made several reconsider their previously held assumptions. One said it would make her "more holistic in her approach" to such matters, he recalled, while another told him the hearing was very educational and emotional. In the end, however, he said he was told by more than one member that they just couldn't bring themselves to vote for the measure.

Naishtat is undeterred: passing this legislation is the right thing to do and he'll continue to fight for that to happen. "There's definitely movement forward," he said.

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