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LEANDER — Texas veterans are working to protect the state’s hemp market — and push to expand the state’s medical marijuana program — at the state Capitol during this year’s legislative session.
The veterans and their supporters say they need access to the hemp product known as delta-8 to treat issues such as chronic pain, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Delta-8 is widely available throughout Texas and, like marijuana, can create a feeling of euphoria.
“So many veterans are using these products and reporting good results,” said Dave Bass, an Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom who is diagnosed with PTSD. He’s also a longtime advocate in the legislative push for accessible, affordable THC products.
Most states, including Texas, legalized hemp production following federal changes in 2018 that removed the plant from the list of illegal controlled substances. The hemp plant has a lower amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, than the marijuana plant. THC is the chemical that produces the drug’s “high.”
Delta-8 is different from the more common commercial hemp product cannabidiol, or CBD, which is found in a variety of products including lotions, gummies and even treats for pets. While CBD can create a mild comfortable feeling, it will not produce the same sort of high as delta-8.
State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, wants the state to limit access to delta-8 — which is commonly sold in edibles and vape pens — and other consumable hemp products because of its psychoactive effects. In his opinion, hemp products with psychotropic effects are already illegal.
“I’m not gonna let a rogue industry group jeopardize or sabotage that,” he said.
The renewed legislative debate comes as several cities across Texas have wrestled with decriminalizing marijuana by banning arrests and citations for carrying small amounts of the substance in most cases. The drug remains illegal at the federal and state level. Texas is one of 29 states that have not legalized recreational marijuana, although 82% of Texans support legalization of the drug for medical purposes, according to a poll released Thursday by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.
Texas is home to an estimated 1.5 million veterans. Those with illnesses who are seeking alternatives to traditional medicine should work to update the state’s medical marijuana program, Perry said.
Texas’ marijuana Compassionate Use Program, one of the most conservative in the nation, operates with very few prescribing doctors and has limited eligibility requirements.
The program was established in 2015 for patients with severe epilepsy. As of October, 36,651 Texans were enrolled in the program. Less than half were active patients receiving regular care and medication through the program.
Veteran service organizations have successfully helped to expand the Compassionate Use Program before. In 2019, the Legislature added PTSD to the eligible conditions. And while veterans who spoke to The Texas Tribune said they would welcome further expansion, they said the existing hemp market, compared with the Compassionate Use Program, offers them wider access and more affordable options to similar products like delta-8.
Neither state law nor health department regulations address delta-8. Perry unsuccessfully attempted to put limits on the market during the 2021 legislative session. His bill would have effectively halted the delta-8 market by disallowing synthetically derived THC to be extracted from hemp and used as a concentrate.
During the last legislative session, twin versions of the bill went to both the Senate and the House. It passed the Senate with amendments, but it failed to win over House approval. However, Perry will try again this session with Senate Bill 264, which would prohibit synthetically derived THC and effectively end the delta-8 consumable hemp market across the state.
“Hemp-based products are legal, effective and affordable,” said Mitch Fuller, the national and state legislative chair for the Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars.
At the Leander VFW, veterans and their family members do more than drink at the always-staffed watering hole.
In an inconspicuous corner is a green vending machine. Instead of sodas, snacks or candy, this machine delivers a THC-packed punch in gummies.
Dave Walden, an elected official for the local VFW and a veteran, said he tried nearly 30 prescription drugs from the Department of Veterans Affairs and now only takes a regimen of hemp-derived gummies and a prescription for diabetes. Walden said he and other veterans have been overprescribed pharmaceutical drugs — including highly addictive opioids — with troubling side effects.
“We were zombies,” Walden said. “We were doing all the successful stuff like Valium, Ativan, hydrocodone, gabapentin — not at separate times — daily.”
Bass, 67, retired in Killeen after 25 years in the U.S. Army. He took pills prescribed to him by the Temple VA for six years but struggled with the side effects, he said.
First: Products line the shelves of the newly restocked De Vega CBD Relief vending machine in Leander on Nov. 1. Last: CBD products sit on a table at the Leander VFW post. Credit: Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune
Out of desperation, Bass said he began using cannabis illegally to treat his symptoms in lieu of the medications prescribed to him by the VA. Within a year, Bass said, he stopped taking his VA medications.
Bass uses his experiences to advocate for other veterans through the nonprofit group Texas NORML, a chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Bass is a patient enrolled with the Compassionate Use Program. Because of that program's regulations, the medication can be both more expensive and less effective than drugs in the illicit market or legal alternatives like hemp-derived delta-8.
Bass said Perry’s effort to end the delta-8 market would have terrible unintended consequences.
“If they ban these products, it’s going to push a lot of veterans back to the illicit market,” he said.
Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.