Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill on June 15, sent to his desk by the 87th Texas Legislature, that expands the pool of patients available for inclusion in the state’s medical cannabis program.
This expansion of the compassionate use program, first adopted in 2015, will potentially open the door to thousands of new patients across the country to gain access to medical cannabis formulas.
Through House Bill 1535, passed by the Texas Senate on May 31, the Compassionate Use Program will now include provisions for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer patients to potentially obtain prescriptions for medicinal cannabis.
“These groups will include tremendous numbers of patients,” said Dr. Karen Keough, the chief medical officer of Austin-based medical cannabis dispensary, Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation. Keough is also an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Texas A&M University.
The state medical cannabis program previously included patients diagnosed with seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, spasticity, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, autism, terminal cancer, or an incurable neurodegenerative disease. When the law was first introduced six years ago, it only applied to patients with persistent epilepsy.
Since the law was first expanded in 2019, more than 4,500 new patients have received prescriptions through the Compassionate Use Program, according to annual reports from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Dr. Jeffrey Kane, a child neurologist with Child Neurology Consultants of Austin, said he had seen encouraging results in pediatric patients with prescriptions for medical cannabis with various types of diseases.
“There are very good data there for epilepsy. We know for sure that treating childhood seizures is effective, ”said Kane. “The benefits in autism are less clear, but I’ve been convinced of its usefulness just by seeing my patients. … It doesn’t cure autism, but I’ve seen significant improvements in behavioral outbursts and restlessness [and] Language in children with limited abilities. “
Kane warns that medical cannabis is not a panacea for patients. Instead, the pediatrician emphasizes that prescribing medical cannabis is just one tool in a big tool box, especially for children with chronic seizures.
“When it comes to epilepsy, we see a lot of families who want [cannabidiol] instead of traditional medicine, and I think this can go further than I’m comfortable with, ”said Kane.
However, Kane also noted that children with autism appear to be more successful at prescribing medicinal cannabis with higher concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. This is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.
Texas lawmakers changed an early draft of HB 1535 that would have raised THC levels in prescribing medicinal cannabis to a maximum concentration of 5% – up from 0.5% as set in the original 2015 law. With the amendment, the extension contains a provision for a maximum concentration of 1%. The law comes into force on September 1st.
“The concentration doesn’t affect the total daily dose I prescribe, but it will affect what my patient will need to take to get the same daily dose,” said Keough. “It is a wrong concept to believe that higher concentrations result in people ingesting intoxicating doses.”
OUTLOOK FOR MEDICAL CANNABIS
According to records from the Texas Department of Public Safety, there are currently 21 doctors in Austin licensed to prescribe medicinal cannabis. That’s the second highest number in any city in Texas – Houston has 24 doctors.
In the past two years, the number of doctors licensed to prescribe medical cannabis in Texas has more than doubled to 323 in 2021.
“We had a lot more prescribers coming on board and responding more positively to patients asking for therapy,” Keough said. “You have several hundred new patients a month.”
Keough’s pharmacy, Compassionate Cultivation, is one of only three statewide licensed to grow, produce, and sell medicinal cannabis, along with Fluent, which is based in Florida and Goodblend Texas, which is owned by Parallel in Georgia .
Compassionate Cultivation, the only Texas-based pharmacy, announced on June 7 that it had secured $ 21 million in investment funding from AFI Capital Partners.
Keough told Community Impact Newspaper that she believes continued exposure to medical cannabis treatments will eventually force the Texan legislature to expand the program further at the next meeting in 2023 – if the federal government doesn’t already.
“The more patients and prescribers we advocate for this therapy and have success, the stronger it will be that lawmakers will demand that this program be expanded,” said Keough.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states in the US had comprehensive medical cannabis programs as of June, which means prescriptions are not limited to low doses of THC. Texas is one of 11 states that operate under the guidelines for low THC levels.