Patients Urge Lawmakers to Pass Medical Marijuana Measure

Whether lawmakers have compassion remains to be seen

Patients Urge Lawmakers to Pass Medical Marijuana Measure
Courtesy of DEA

For Stephen Betzen and his wife, marijuana was a miracle drug.

Years of body pain caused by Lyme Disease put Betzen's wife in a wheelchair in 2007. Under increasing, debilitating pain she was prescribed narcotic painkillers, but they left her a shell of herself – lethargic and confined to bed. She was "a ghost of the woman I loved," Betzen testified before the House Public Health Committee last week. And then a package showed up on the couple's front porch with a simple, anonymous, note that read, "I thought this could help," Betzen recalled. Inside was marijuana.

It changed their lives, for the better, Betzen testified. His wife could keep down the more than 35 pills she had to take each day; within six months she was about to walk again, with forearm crutches. Two years later she was using a cane. A year after that she only needed a walking stick. Now she's able to work again. But in order to "help her to improve her quality of life," Betzen noted, "I had to break the law."

Indeed, that was a recurring sentiment expressed during emotional testimony offered by a host of witnesses who have either suffered with debilitating and painful illness or who have acted as caretakers for friends and loved ones suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses and who advocate for passage of Dem Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat's House Bill 594, which would create an affirmative defense to prosecution for pot possession by patients suffering from bona fide illness. The measure would also protect doctors from retaliation for discussing or recommending marijuana for medical use by their patients. The bill would not legalize marijuana for medicinal use. "It is the most conservative bill on medical marijuana in the nation," Betzen said.

This is the fifth time Naishtat has filed the bill, but only the second time the measure has gotten a hearing. The Committee on May 1 heard from just more than two dozen witnesses testifying in favor of the measure – many with sadly similar stories of pain and heartache ameliorated by medicinal use of marijuana. No witnesses testified or registered against the measure.

Still, whether the Public Health Committee is the best place for the measure is unclear. The bill's last favorable nod came the year it was heard in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which often considers measures that create affirmative defense to criminal prosecution. Indeed, another measure, HB 1743, by Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, creates an affirmative defense from prosecution for drug users who remain on-scene and call in to 911 an overdose – a so-called "Good Samaritan law" that drug-law reformers and public health professionals have long advocated for as a means to help reduce overdose deaths.

HB 1743 got a unanimous vote, 9-0, to pass it on to the House floor. So far, HB 594 has not been voted on by the committee, despite many witness pleas for lawmakers to do so. "My faith teaches me that where love and care are present God is present," Betzen testified. "I'm asking you today to stand on the side of love – stand on the side of love and pass this bill."

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