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Medical Marijuana Bill Considered by Texas Lawmakers

A bill that that would allow epilepsy patients in Texas to use medicinal oils containing a therapeutic component found in marijuana was considered by state lawmakers in an emotional hearing on Tuesday.

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A bill that that would allow epilepsy patients in Texas to use medicinal oils containing a therapeutic component found in marijuana was considered by state lawmakers in an emotional hearing on Tuesday.

House Bill 892 would legalize oils containing CBD, a non-euphoric component of marijuana known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. By 2018, the measure would allow the state to regulate and distribute the oils to epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication. The measure was left pending by the House Committee on Public Health.

At the hearing, supporters of the proposal, also known as the Compassionate Use Act, recounted the seizures endured by children who they say could benefit from derivatives of medical marijuana. But opponents of the bill, including representatives of law enforcement agencies, expressed concerns that increased access to any component of marijuana would jeopardize public safety.

"This is a focused bill designed to give people with intractable epilepsy another option when others have failed," the bill's author, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, told the committee. "[CBD oils] have no street value, and these families have no other options."

The representative's interest in medical marijuana came after she met constituents in her district who have children suffering from Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that begins in infancy.

"If CBD weren't available in the number of states it is available in, we wouldn't be having this conversation today," said M. Scott Perry, a pediatric neurologist with Cook Children's in Fort Worth, testifying in favor of the bill. "The human data on CBD use is very encouraging. What is frustrating is that I can't prescribe CBD to patients in my state, in Texas."

Texas is one of 16 states where marijuana is illegal for medical and recreational use. In recent years13 states have legalized CBD oil for certain medical conditions. Twenty-three other states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing broader medical marijuana use.

"If you don't like the way [medical marijuana] is regulated in Colorado, don't regulate it that way," said Paige Figi, a Colorado resident who came to Texas to testify in favor of the legislation.

Her 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte – who now has a strain of medical cannabis, Charlotte's Web, named after her – suffered more than 1,000 seizures a month before starting on CBD oil three years ago, she said. Now, Charlotte has one or two seizures a month, she said. "If my daughter Charlotte lived here in Texas, she would not be alive today."

Figi spoke alongside Fahad Afeef, a former Texas resident who relocated to Colorado to seek treatment for his son, who suffers from intractable epilepsy. 

"He was born a normal child, but he is 100 percent dependent on us now," said Afeef, whose son suffered severe seizures for more than four years before they left Texas. "If he had had this option earlier, he may not have lost so much."

"If we passed this law, would you come back to Texas?" asked state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin. Several committee members were visibly moved by the testimony.

"Yes," Afeed said. "You would not only be helping us, but you would be helping a lot of other families."

Opponents of the bill expressed concerns over public safety and increased recreational use of marijuana as an unwanted consequence of increasing access to CBD oils. Others worried that the products would be hard to regulate. 

"I am concerned about the other children in the household getting ahold of this medication when the parents aren't around," said Denton County Sheriff William Travis, speaking on behalf of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas. "As a father, I would do anything for my child. But putting low amounts of marijuana oil in a child's body where the brain is not fully developed is not the way."

The Texas Medical Association has made clear that it does not support legalizing marijuana for medical use. "There is no validated science to support its use in broad treatment," the association said in a statement earlier this year.

But some medical marijuana advocates are still reluctant to support the proposed Texas Compassionate Use Act, calling it appeasement legislation that would do little to help Texans with epilepsy — and nothing for those with other diseases, such as cancer, that can be treated with medical marijuana. 

Last year, a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll showed that 77 percent of Texans believed that marijuana should be legalized in at least some circumstances.

A number of other bills dealing with medical marijuana, including legislation from Naishtat that would provide an affirmative defense for patients who use marijuana based on the recommendation of their doctors, were slated to be heard by the committee on Tuesday afternoon.

This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

Disclosure: The Texas Medical Association is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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