AUSTIN — Cherie Rineker, a terminally ill cancer patient, tried marijuana to ease her pain and vomiting. But she had to go to Colorado to do it, she said at a press conference here to urge lawmakers to get moving on a trio of medical cannabis bills stalled in Texas House and Senate committees.
“I decided to leave my husband and daughter for two months to give cannabis a try outside the state of Texas,” and the tingling and stabbing pain of her neuropathy “disappeared within a couple of days,” Rineker said. “I never once had to reach for my opioids.”
Back in Texas, though, she had to call an ambulance when every anti-nausea medicine available to her couldn’t control her vomiting.
Passage of Senate Bill 269 could bring “better quality of life, possibly even an extension of life,” Rineker said, and offer some hope that she could “be around to watch my daughter graduate from high school.”
That bill and others that would widen the use of medical marijuana have stalled in committee, although another measure to reduce criminal penalties for marijuana possession has cleared a House panel.
Authored by Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, SB 269, would authorize the possession, use, cultivation and distribution of cannabis by qualifying patients with a debilitating medical condition. It would allow medical practitioners registered by the Department of Public Safety to recommend — but not prescribe — cannabis to seriously ill patients.
It would require eligible patients to be diagnosed with a medical condition listed on the bill, and allow doctors to determine what strains and dosage of marijuana would be best for each condition.
Rev. Rick Sitton, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bryan who spoke at the press conference, said Texas has hundreds of thousands of kids who could benefit from cannabis, like his 9-year-old grandson, who is autistic, hits himself, and is non-verbal.
“Being pro-life means you’re pro all of life. We need them to hear us. They need to schedule a hearing on this,” Sitton said. “I know (lawmakers) care about people, I just don’t think they are aware.”
SB 269 was referred to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. A companion bill, House Bill 2107, being carried by Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, went to the House Public Health Committee, chaired by Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo.
Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing, an opportunity for supporters to provide their testimony.
The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, meanwhile, has sent House Bill 81 to the full House for a possible vote. Authored by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, it would eliminate any jail time or threat of arrest for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. The offense would be punishable by a fine of $250.
After hearing testimony late Monday, the same committee took no action on House Bill 2200, which would protect patients possessing marijuana with a defense against prosecution. It also would free licensed physicians in Texas from civil or criminal investigation by a state agency if they discussed marijuana as a treatment option or stated that the potential benefits of medical marijuana would outweigh the health risks for a particular patient.
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, the bill’s author, said Texans who suffer from chronic pain can only use medical marijuana at the risk of criminal prosecution.
Testifying in favor of HB 2200, Mark Zartler said marijuana calms his 17-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy. A video of him giving her vaporized marijuana through a mask to keep her from hitting herself went viral in February.
“I can’t stop. I can’t let her hit herself,” Zartler said. “Everyone tells me that we should just move… Now that all these people saw the video and have seen the treatment, they’re going to move forward to help their children.”
Amanda Berard, a nurse, said she has seen adverse reactions, organ damage, and financial and personal turmoil in families from the federally approved pharmaceuticals she administers to her patients, including young children. But she can’t discuss the effectiveness and lack of drastic side effects of cannabis with them, she said.
The same theme was sounded at Tuesday’s press conference, where Thalia Michelle, director of policy at Mothers Advocating Medical Marijuana for Autism, said SB 269 could help her autistic son Lance be less aggressive and have a better quality of life if treated with a plant, not pharmaceuticals.
“He tantrums, he’s aggressive, he hits, he bites,” Michelle said. “We get reports from school of him breaking skin, hurting other children. All his pharmaceuticals have so many debilitating side effects and potential risks to doing permanent damage to my son’s body.”
People taking a larger amount of pain medicine develop a tolerance to it while experiencing side effects like severe constipation or drowsiness, and the medicine and doctor visits cost the state in Medicare and Medicaid money, said Dr. Robert Marks, a board certified pain management doctor.
“States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent decrease in overdose deaths” from opioids, Marks said. “It means people are taking less painkillers. It means medical cannabis actually helps with their pain.”
A 2015 Texas law allows doctors to prescribe cannabidiol, or CBD, with low amounts of THC, the cannabis component that gives users a high. But only epileptic patients in cases where federally approved drugs failed qualify. Advocates say the law’s requirement that doctors prescribe — not recommend — the specific strain of medical cannabis puts their licenses at risk, since the drug is still illegal under federal law.
Nobody testified against either HB 81 or HB 2200, the two bills that did receive a hearing. On Monday, as the jurisprudence committee wrapped up testimony on HB 2200 after hearing about 25 bills before it, the panel’s vice chairman, Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, gave the audience a pointed reminder.
“It’s 11:35 p.m. Where is the opposition?” Hunter asked. “I’m going to send the message out that if you’re opposed, it doesn’t make you any good to show up in two weeks in our office, when people come from all across the state (to testify in support).”
This article was published in the San Antonio Express-News April 25, 2017.