Will Texas Expand Medical Marijuana Access?

Weed be a lot cooler if we did

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When the Texas Department of Public Safety announced in January that it would accept new applications to license medical marijuana dispensing organizations, a budding chorus of advocates and patients celebrated the potential for greater access to cannabis. But as the April 28 deadline to apply approaches, many of them worry it may not be enough, given that current access to the Compassionate Use Program (CUP) is extremely restricted.

In 2015, the Texas legislature enacted the CUP law, enabling the Texas DPS to create a registry of licensed physicians authorized to prescribe low-THC cannabis to patients with intractable epilepsy. Several other qualifying conditions, including autism, multiple sclerosis, and terminal cancer, were added in later legislative sessions.

The law also required that DPS issue at least three licenses to dispensing organizations, but "no more than the number of licenses necessary to ensure reasonable statewide access." Each prospective dispensary must also pay over $7,000 to apply and, if selected, owes the state close to half a million for a two-year term. Despite the number of patients enrolled in the program skyrocketing from a couple hundred in 2018 to over 50,000 by last month, DPS still only licenses three dispensing organizations for the entire state. Several sources said that only two, Texas Original and Goodblend, are still open for business.

Texas Original CEO Nico Richardson said the license for dispensing organizations requires companies to be responsible for cultivation, manufacturing, internal testing, and dispensing. He said that process benefits larger organizations with deep pockets, so granting new licenses could favor multistate operators (MSOs).

"Under the current license, you'd have to do [everything] in one location," said Rich­ard­son, whose dispensary is in South Austin. "But you also, under the law, have to serve the entire state of Texas." He added that dispensing organizations must hire an entire fleet of in-house drivers, since they can't ship with the U.S. Postal Service or other couriers. "Until we can have access to off-site inventory, and allow patients to come pick up their prescription at a dispensing location across the state, [it's] very difficult to provide reasonable access to patients."

Medical cannabis advocates celebrated last week when the Texas House passed a bipartisan bill that would expand eligibility for CUP to patients with chronic pain. If approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, House Bill 1805 would also authorize the Texas Department of State Health Services to add qualifying conditions without needing to change state law.

Texas NORML Executive Director Jax James said that compared to other states with medical marijuana programs, Texas has a much lower patient rate per population. And while she celebrated the passage of HB 1805, she said that ultimately the issue comes down to regulating delivery, which makes it difficult for patients to navigate getting their prescriptions.

In a mid-February DPS meeting of the Public Safety Commission, members discussed the future of CUP amid ongoing application reviews. At the time, 57 entities filed paperwork to become dispensing organizations (costing them each $7,356). Chief Wayne Mueller of the Regulatory Services Division said they're looking at other states' medical marijuana programs, specifically Florida's, to avoid going "too far, too fast." He said the Texas' program isn't robust yet and that "it's going from infancy to toddler at this point in time." At the time of publication, DPS has not responded for comment.

"The good news is that there are people in Texas that are benefiting from cannabis right now, and that is bringing them great relief," said James. "We need to continue to put the pressure on to make sure that we don't leave any patients behind."

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