Author Archives: Alex Samuels

After 2015 legalization, Texans may be able to buy medical cannabis oil by January

Gov. Greg Abbott displays SB339 as Rep. John Zerwas, Rep. Stephanie Klick and Sen. Kevin Eltife watch. The bill would allow limited use of medical marijuana oil that will control seizures in epileptic children.

In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the first bill allowing any growing or sale of marijuana in Texas. The Texas Compassionate Use Act legalized the selling of a specific kind of cannabis oil derived from marijuana plants for a very small group of customers: epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

Two years later, Texans still can’t legally buy cannabis oil, but a handful of companies believe they are weeks away from receiving the official go-ahead to become the state’s first sellers.

But even if those approvals go through, it’ll still be some time before any Texans will be able to buy what they’re selling.

The three eligible dispensaries — Surterra Texas, Cansortium Texas and Compassionate Cultivation — are waiting on the final stamp of approval from the Texas Department of Public Safety to begin growing and distributing marijuana. The agency has until Sept. 1 to do so under the 2015 law.

That could put cannabis oil on the market by January, two and a half years after Abbott signed a law legalizing it, according to some potential sellers.

“Let’s say that we get our final license on Sept. 1. Only after that point will we be able to start growing marijuana,” said Morris Denton, a spokesman for Compassionate Cultivation, which is planning a dispensary in the Austin area. “Once we start growing, it’s going to take about four months before we’re ready to dispense medicine because of the extraction and testing process the plant has to go through after it’s been harvested.”

Dispensaries like Compassionate Cultivation will only be able to sell to a small percentage of Texans under the narrow 2015 law, which allows for the sale of oils with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element in marijuana, and high levels of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-euphoric component known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions.

Supporters have praised the Texas law as a historic shift in the state’s policy related to marijuana. But some critics have argued that the THC and CBD levels Texas has legalized are still too low to help many epilepsy patients and provides no help for others who could be helped by medical marijuana in other forms.

“Texas took a very narrow, specific approach focused on epilepsy patients only — which is indicative of the state,” said Adam Sharon, the communications director for Cansortium Texas, which is planning a dispensary in Fayette County between Houston and Austin. (The third dispensary, Surterra Texas, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico now allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Texas is one of 17 states to pass a law allowing for the use of “low THC, high CBD” products for medical reasons in limited situations.

“We were very disappointed in how unreasonably restrictive the Compassionate Use Act was written,” said Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “We’re grateful it was intended for some people to have access to some type of cannabis, but science shows [medical marijuana] can help countless Texans suffering from PTSD, multiple sclerosis and severe pain.”

Texas began accepting applications for dispensing organizations in March 2017. Two months later, DPS announced it had selected three applicants out of the 43 that applied to receive preliminary licenses as dispensing organizations.

Denton said his business is waiting to complete a “fairly substantial inspection report” from the DPS before his dispensary will get the approval needed to begin growing and cultivating marijuana. The report is an 18-page document requiring each dispensary to verify the facility’s lease and permits from local fire marshals, among other things, he said.

“The inspections will confirm the applicant’s’ compliance with the safety, security, cultivation and processing requirements,” a spokesperson for the DPS wrote in an emailed statement to the Tribune.

The House sponsor of the Compassionate Use Act, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said in an interview in the Capitol Wednesday that she expected the first dispensaries would be “up and running” by Sept. 1 and that she’s visited with “a few of the vendors.” When asked why the dispensaries have not received final approval from the state, Klick said she hadn’t heard about that.

Advocates, however, said they believe the state’s slow pace for the past two years reflects a larger issue.

“These folks [at DPS] haven’t known anything other than putting people in jail for cannabis, and now, all of sudden, they have to learn about this plant, establish best practices and execute the rollout,” Fazio said. “That’s a lot to do in a little more than two years.”

Emmanuel Garza moved his family last year from Sullivan City, Texas near the border to Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal, in order to be able to purchase CBD oil and other medical products derived from marijuana to treat his daughter’s seizures. He said he pays nearly $200 for a 100-milliliter bottle of CBD oil, which he said lasts almost a year since she takes such a small dosage.

Denton said there remain too many variables to know how much his Texas dispensary will charge eligible patients for cannabis oil.

“You may have one doctor that prescribes a certain dosing and then another that prescribes a different dosing,” Denton said. “[The price] will pivot off of what a price per gram of the CBD oil will be and then how that gets delivered through different products.”

Shannon Najmabadi contributed reporting to this story.

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State Rep. Dawnna Dukes declines deal from Travis County District Attorney

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, chats on the House floor on August 1, 2017.  Dukes faces a deadline to resign from office or face corruption charges from the Travis County District Attorney's Office. 

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, declined a deal from the Travis County District Attorney’s office Tuesday that would have allowed the 12-term representative to have all corruption charges dropped against her if she had agreed to resign immediately.

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said she’d had no contact from the attorneys for Dukes.

“The offer to resolve this matter has expired and is no longer available,” Moore said in a statement. “We will be ready for trial.”

As a part of the deal, Dukes would’ve had to also pay $3,500 in fines and restitution and agree to a drug and alcohol assessment. Dukes has previously denied charges that she had her legislative staff run personal errands and that she was compensated for days she did not work at the Texas Capitol.

“It is truly not dignifying this new low that such character assassination has hit in this web woven to influence a court of public opinion,” Dukes wrote in a Facebook post Monday night. “As such, it would be indecorous of me to respond to impertinent allegations.”

When the Tribune asked Dukes about the DA office’s deal Tuesday morning, Dukes said, “I’m not talking about that right now.”

Dukes declining the deal means the district attorney’s office will move forward with the trial, which was set by Judge Brad Urrutia for Oct. 16.

“It’s time to move on. Some form of this deal has been discussed [with Dukes] since September,” Moore told the Tribune on Monday. “We’ve got to go to work, and we’re going to be preparing for trial.”

In January, a Travis County grand jury indicted Dukes on 13 counts of tampering with a governmental record, a felony punishable by up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000. These charges are based on allegations that Dukes made false entries on travel vouchers to obtain money for expenses she was not entitled to.

In addition, she was indicted on two charges of abuse of official capacity by a public servant, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000. Those charges allege that Dukes used her legislative staff to work on the African American Community Heritage Festival and, in one instance, be a live-in nanny for her daughter.

In June, the 12-term lawmaker pleaded not guilty to tampering with a governmental record and abuse of official capacity by a public servant.

Dukes has faced criticism for missing votes and being absent from the House floor during the 85th Legislature’s regular session earlier this year. She was not in attendance when the House voted on the final budget. Despite this, Dukes said in late June that it was a “strong possibility” she’d run for re-election in 2018.

On July 25, two of Dukes’ Houston-based lawyers filed a motion to withdraw as counsel, citing an inability to “effectively communicate with the defendant on matters essential to the representation.”

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This Texan’s daughter needed medical marijuana, so he moved to Colorado

Listen to Emmanuel Garza explain why he wanted House Bill 2107 — which would’ve expanded the use of medical marijuana — to pass.

Madelynn Garza had her first seizure at three months old.

She was born with Aicardi Syndrome, a disease affecting nearly 4,000 people worldwide that caused her infantile spasms and made her legally blind. Now almost two, Madelynn’s parents say they’re not sure whether she’ll ever walk or speak, or how long she’ll live.

To help relieve Madelynn’s pain and curb her seizures, the family bounced from doctor to doctor in Texas and attempted to treat her with pharmaceutical drugs — some of which had negative side effects on her heart and liver.

Before a slate of new laws takes effect Sept. 1, we’re taking a look at a few measures that didn’t pass the finish line during 2017’s regular legislative session — and how those “dead bills” affect individual Texans.

Today’s bill:

House Bill 2107 would’ve expanded the “Compassionate Use Act,” a measure signed into law in 2015. The bill would’ve let qualifying patients with debilitating medical conditions use an oil derivative of medicinal marijuana — specifically low-dose THC. The bill never came up for a vote.

“Once doctors knew she had Aicardi Syndrome, they kind of gave up on us,” said Emmanuel Garza, Madelynn’s father. “We didn’t accept that. We did a lot of research and came across medical marijuana and how it’s helped kids with epilepsy.”

That research prompted the family’s move on Thanksgiving Day from Sullivan City, Texas — a small town near the Texas-Mexico border — to Aurora, Colo., where recreational marijuana is legal.

CBD — a non-euphoric component of marijuana that Texas lawmakers legalized for medicinal use in oil form in 2015 under the state’s Compassionate Use Act — didn’t alleviate his daughter’s seizures.

But THCA oil, which is made from another part of the marijuana plant known to help with epilepsy patients, and isn’t yet legal in Texas, immediately relieved Madelynn’s pain in Colorado.

Moving to Colorado “wasn’t really a choice when you’re talking about the wellbeing of your child,” Garza said. “You do what’s best for your child.”

In 2017’s regular legislative session, Garza hoped Texas lawmakers would open the door for his family to return to Texas by passing a bill authored by state Reps. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, and Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, to expand the use of medicinal marijuana in Texas to components other than CBD.

“We had to move, and it wasn’t really a choice when you’re talking about the wellbeing of your child. You do what’s best for your child.”

— Emmanuel Garza, father of Madelynn Garza

“Although [the Compassionate Use Act] was specifically designed for people like my daughter, the CBD alone did not work,” Garza said. “What do you do then, when the law that was passed in Texas is not going to help you?”

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, was one of the co-authors of a measure that would've expanded the use of medicinal marijuana. Despite bipartisan support, the bill never made it to the House floor for a vote.
State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, was one of the co-authors of a measure that would’ve expanded the use of medicinal marijuana. Despite bipartisan support, the bill never made it to the House floor for a vote. Marjorie Kamys Cotera / The Texas Tribune

House Bill 2107 would’ve allowed health care specialists focused on neurological disorders to administer both low-dose THC and CBD to patients. Patients would’ve only been allowed to use the treatment if two other medications had failed. But despite bipartisan support in the lower chamber — the bill had 77 House lawmakers signed on as co-authors — the measure never made it to the House floor for a vote.

“This isn’t something that’s cooked up in a lab. It’s made like olive oil,” Isaac told The Texas Tribune during the regular legislative session. “It just seems absurd that we can’t give patients the freedom to use this because there’s so many stigmas around the word ‘marijuana.’”

Since the measure didn’t pass in the regular legislative session and is not on Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-item agenda for this summer’s special session, it’s unlikely the law will change soon. Garza said his family plans to remain in Colorado for another two years. He’s hopeful that in 2019, there will be more momentum to pass a medical marijuana law that would allow families like his to stay in the state.

“At the end of the day, my daughter is not going to be like everyone else. The seizures will slowly kill her,” Garza said. “So if this medicine helps her, you’re doing it to try to save her life.”

Live chat: Talk to our reporters about bills that didn’t make it out of the regular session — and what’s ahead in the special — Friday, July 14 at noon. Ask a question

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North Texas mayors reject protectionist “Buy American” iron and steel bill

The mayors of two North Texas cities are siding with Canadian officials over the potentially negative impact a “Buy American” iron and steel measure could have on Texas-Canada trade relations.

Both Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who are on a trade mission to Toronto and Montreal this week, said they had concerns with a law that will require large state projects — such as buildings, roads and bridges — to purchase iron and steel from an American supplier if the cost doesn’t exceed 20 percent more than the price of cheaper, foreign imports.

The measure was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott Friday and goes into effect Sept. 1. 

The law has grabbed the attention of several Canadian officials, who wrote in a May 15 letter to Texas senators that they were “deeply concerned” with how the law would impact Texas-Canada trade. They asked members of a legislative conference committee to tack on an amendment that would exempt Canadian steel, but their request was denied.

“I didn’t like that (law),” Rawlings said in an interview on BNN, Canada’s Business News Network. “I think it was pointed at China, but it has some repercussions here in Canada and we need to go back and talk to [Abbott] about that.”

In a statement to The Texas Tribune Thursday, Price said she was concerned with some of the unintended consequences the measure could have on “our positive Texas-Canada trade relationship” and planned to work with lawmakers to “explore potential changes to this law.

“It is critical we support our strong trade relationship with Canada, while also promoting efforts to support the American marketplace and American jobs,” she said.

Senate Bill 1289 by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, expands a provision already in effect for the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Water Development Board. The bill also says that if American suppliers aren’t prepared to supply a project or if there is a compelling state interest, any country’s iron and steel can be used.

Canada is the top export destination for U.S. steel products, representing roughly $9.7 billion in trade last year. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said in a written statement that she had met with both Texas mayors on Monday and was hoping to work with Texas lawmakers to seek an exemption for the province. 

“The strong relationship between Ontario and Texas is long-standing and vital to the economies of both regions,” she wrote. “We are disappointed that Texas has passed discriminatory Buy American provisions.”

Creighton has previously said that the aim of his bill was not to penalize Canada, but to ensure “foreign governments like China and Turkey can’t create a foreign steel market that would gut the American market.

“We stand firm for Texas jobs and manufacturers and against communist China flooding the market to hurt those stakeholders,” he said.

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