After receiving a medical retirement from the military stemming from her time in Afghanistan, Viridiana Edwards found herself taking 23 prescription pills a day.
“A lot of those pills were actually to treat side effects from other pills, it wasn’t even to treat my disabilities,” she said.
Edwards is just one of many Texas veterans who could benefit from a more robust medical cannabis program. And though newly passed legislation fell short of many advocates’ hopes, the Texas Compassionate Use Program is set to expand eligibility.
If signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, House Bill 1535 would allow hundreds of thousands of Texans to join roughly 2 million residents in qualifying for the state’s medical marijuana program. Despite that, only 6,000 Texans are currently enrolled in the program.
Though it remains one of the most restrictive medical marijuana programs in the country, Texas’ Compassionate Use Program has come a long way.
First passed during the 84th Legislative Session in 2015, the program was only extended to Texans who have been diagnosed with intractable epilepsy. The dosage limit on products with THC could not exceed 0.5%.
In 2019, under the same dosage caps, lawmakers expanded the program to include Texans who live with a number of other incurable neurodegenerative diseases, along with epilepsy, seizure disorders, autism and terminal cancer.
This session, lawmakers in the Texas House hoped to expand the program further with House Bill 1535. The initial bill, authored by members of both parties, added cancer, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain as eligible diagnoses. It also increased the dosage of allowable THC to 5%.
The bill faced headwinds in the Texas Senate, however, where it stalled for a few weeks before it was referred to a committee.
“It was like we had to drag this bill,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.
Fazio said she and other advocates, including former Dallas Cowboy Jay Novacek, had to publicly call on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to refer the bill and move it along the legislative process.
The bill was eventually referred, but the Senate approved more restrictive amendments in the process, striking the chronic pain diagnosis from the program and raising the THC cap to 1%, down from 5% threshold approved by the House.
“There was nothing said on the record,” Fazio said about the Senate’s amendments. “And that is so frustrating because they refuse to have an open conversation.”
With time running out in the legislative session, the House voted to approve the Senate amendments.
“The bill was watered down, unfortunately,” Fazio said. “Thankfully, we were able to carry it across the finish line.”
The fight to include PTSD
Veterans with PTSD have been lobbying for years to get their diagnosis eligible for the state’s medical marijuana program.
In the 2019 legislative session, an organization titled Texas Veterans for Marijuana attempted to make the expansion, but the effort was unsuccessful, partially due to misguided statistics cited in the Texas Senate, which was reported by the Texas Observer.
Edwards, an El Paso native who now lives in San Antonio, has been involved in those efforts.
She enlisted in the military when she was 17, serving for years before she received a medical retirement in June 2015. Edwards spent part of her time serving in mortuary affairs in Kandahar, Afghanistan, which contributed to her own PTSD.
“That kind of changed the trajectory of my life,” Edwards said.
Edwards struggled after coming home, dealing with physical and emotional issues.
She only truly experienced relief from her PTSD when she tried medical cannabis during a trip to California — relief that her medication alone could not deliver.
“The first time I tried cannabis ... it brought me to tears, simply because there was a silence in my body that I hadn’t felt in a long time,” she said. “But I was also brought to tears because I knew that I couldn’t access this in Texas.”
Edwards, who has since become a nonresident scholar on drug policy for the Baker Institute for Public Policy, conducted a survey that showed she was not alone.
In a survey of 2,866 Texas residents who use medical cannabis, Edwards found that 52% of veteran respondents, 579 of those surveyed, had used cannabis to treat PTSD.
More than half, 61% of respondents, reported that they have been able to replace prescription opioids with medical cannabis. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed, 84% of respondents, said they have considered leaving the state of Texas due to its restrictive policies on marijuana.
The decision to include PTSD marks a change in how lawmakers are viewing the issue. In 2019, Edwards recalled one state legislator opposing the inclusion because “PTSD is an easy diagnosis to receive.”
“It was a big blow to a lot of people with PTSD,” Edwards said. “I don’t think what we went through was very easy.”
Though Edwards is pleased with the changes, she doesn’t think the program would benefit her given the low cap on THC.
“Unfortunately, it’s counter productive,” she said. “That THC cap is still extremely hindering to so many patients out there.”
Fazio said she and other advocates will continue to fight for more reform in future sessions, acknowledging that public polling shows support for expanded access to marijuana, and that upcoming elections may shake the makeup of the Texas government.
“Texas has an opportunity for new leadership,” Fazio said. “And because I care about liberty, because I care about sensible government and meaningful policy, I hope that we will see new leadership in the state of Texas.”