Texas is expanding access to medical cannabis

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This article was created as part of the NPR NextGen / Texas Observer Print Scholars program, a new collaboration that aims to provide mentoring and hands-on training to student journalists and young graduates interested in careers in investigative journalism.

Every morning when Viridiana Edwards wakes up, she says her body feels like a roll of aluminum foil crumpled into a solid ball. Your legs are numb; the muscles in your arms and back are tense. She is so tense that she worries about pulling a muscle when she raises her arm to brush her teeth. “I can best describe it, a puppet that has been around for years,” says Edwards. “I feel like a puppet with all my threads in a knot.”

So every morning she starts a series of stretches and rubs her neck with a homemade body oil – one made from olive oil, chamomile, and arnica flowers, and cannabidiol (CBD), which is made from hemp. Almost immediately, she says that she is relaxing. “As soon as I use my CBD, it’s like the strings just fall off.”

Edwards, 33, is a U.S. Army veteran who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain on a daily basis. After serving in the military for about a decade, she was retired due to injuries sustained in Afghanistan. Edwards, like others who have campaigned for action to expand medical marijuana legalization in Texas in recent years, says cannabis is the only remedy that has successfully treated its symptoms without the harmful side effects of drugs. Even a small amount has enabled her to reduce her other medications from a few dozen pills a day to one as needed.

Over the past two legislatures, Edwards has shared her experience with Texan lawmakers, urging them to expand the terms and dosage for legal cannabis. But it went slowly. In 2015, Texas legislators passed the Compassionate Use Act, which allowed people with persistent epilepsy to use medical cannabis with extremely low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that causes high levels, on prescription. Two years later, a bill to expand the program received widespread approval in the House of Representatives, but never got a full vote. In 2019, the program expanded to include other conditions such as end-stage cancer and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but nonetheless, those suffering from PTSD were not included. Texas has one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country and is one of 11 states that have a low-THC program. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of May 2021, there are 36 states that allow the use of medicinal cannabis. Seventeen states allow small amounts of adult recreational use.

That spring, the House of Texas House passed Bill 1535 to raise the upper limit on THC levels in pharmaceuticals from 0.5% to 5% and to extend the allowable conditions to chronic pain and PTSD for the first time. But the measure was narrowed down significantly in the Senate, where chronic pain was eliminated and the new THC limit was lowered to 1%. Republican State Sens. Bryan Hughes, chairman of the Senate committee, who heard the bill, and Charles Schwertner, the Senate sponsor, did not respond to a request for comment on the reasons for the tightening of the bill. Some opponents of expanding medical marijuana legalization have stated that they believe it could lead to increased recreational cannabis use.

Governor Greg Abbott signed HB 1535 into effect Tuesday.

Veterans, advocates, and doctors say the 1% upper limit for THC is much lower than many who suffer from pain, PTSD, and other ailments actually need. Even the 5% allowed in the original House of Representatives bill is a fraction of what Edwards says to fully treat their symptoms.

In 2005, Edwards, a first-generation US citizen, met a military recruiter in her junior year at her high school in El Paso. Her parents told her they didn’t have the money to pay for college, so she viewed the military as her way out of her hometown.

It was used four years later. On the way to Kandahar, Afghanistan, she says her flight was delayed due to a missile attack. “It wasn’t even an hour and then there was another missile attack. An alarm goes off and in an English voice the lady says, ‘Missile attack, missile attack’ and at that point you just fell to the ground, “she says. “So that was our welcome.” Edwards says she didn’t sleep at all the first night when the rockets continued, injuring people nearby and triggering requests for blood donation.

When Edwards returned to the United States almost a year later, her cycle of PTSD symptoms – anxiety and chronic pain – began. Soon her pain became too much to bear. She visited a Veterans Affairs clinic but found that the drugs she was prescribed did not help with her condition. Each drug had new side effects, such as extreme weight gain, drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea. Soon she was taking other medication to treat these side effects. Edwards took a maximum of 23 tablets a day with six to seven drugs.

She also took botox for migraines, for which she received 42 injections between the neck, shoulders, skull and forehead on three separate occasions. Botox did provide some relief, but did not completely stop her migraines. “You just lose hope that you will find something that will help,” she says.

As a teenager, Edwards first tried cannabis with a homemade watermelon bong. In 2015, Edwards tried medicinal cannabis for the first time while on vacation in California. “I remember exactly that kind of silence in my body,” says Edwards of the experience. “The pain, the fear, just so many things that I had to go through every day were just gone.”

She has since advocated expanded access to legal medical marijuana at home in Texas and studied its effects on veterans while studying at the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. While glad that PTSD was included as an acceptable condition under the new legislation earlier this year, she says she is frustrated with the still strict limits and the slow process of legalization. “When I raised my hand in Fort Bliss, Texas and said I would serve my country, I don’t remember choosing and choosing whom to serve and protect,” she says.

The new law is due to come into force in September.

This program is made possible by gifts from Roxanne Elder in memory of her mother, journalist and journalism teacher Virginia Stephenson Elder, Vincent LoVoi in honor of Jim Marston and Annette LoVoi, and other generous donors.

This article was originally published by the Texas Observer, a nonprofit investigative news outlet.

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