Texas expands access to medical cannabis — but advocates say it’s not enough

click to enlarge Marijuana plants grow inside a cultivation facility in Canada. - UnSplash / Richard T | The CBD
UnSplash / Richard T | The CBD
Marijuana plants grow inside a cultivation facility in Canada.
This article was produced through the NPR NextGen/Texas Observer Print Scholars program, a new collaboration designed to offer mentorship and hands-on training to student journalists and recent graduates interested in a career in investigative journalism.

Every morning when Viridiana Edwards wakes up, she says her body feels like a roll of aluminum foil crumpled up into a tight ball. Her legs are numb; the muscles in her arms and back are tense. She feels so tense that when she lifts her arm up to brush her teeth, she worries she might pull a muscle. “The best way I can describe it, is just a marionette that’s been in the case for years,” Edwards says. “I feel like a puppet with all of my strings in a knot.” 

So she starts each morning with a series of stretches, and by rubbing a homemade body oil on her neck — one made with olive oil, chamomile and arnica flowers, and cannabidiol (CBD) derived from hemp. Almost immediately, she says she starts to relax. “Once 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 received medical retirement due to injuries she sustained in Afghanistan. Edwards, like others who have advocated for measures to expand medical marijuana legalization in Texas in recent years, says cannabis is the only thing she’s found that’s successfully treated her symptoms without the harmful side effects of pharmaceuticals. Even a small amount has allowed her to cut back her other medication from a couple dozen pills each day to one as needed.  

For the last two legislative sessions, Edwards has shared her experience with Texas lawmakers and urged them to expand the conditions and dosage for legal cannabis. But it’s been slow moving. In 2015, Texas lawmakers passed the Compassionate Use Act, which allowed people with intractable epilepsy to use medical cannabis with extremely low levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the ingredient that causes a high, with a doctor’s prescription. Two years later, a bill to expand the program had a groundswell of bipartisan support in the House, but never came to a full vote. In 2019, the program was expanded to include other conditions such as terminal cancer and neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, but still left out those suffering from PTSD. Texas has one of the most restrictive medical marijuana laws in the country, and is one of 11 states that has a low-THC program. As of May 2021, there are 36 states that allow for the use of medical cannabis, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Seventeen states allow for small amounts of adult recreational use. 

This spring, the Texas House passed House Bill 1535 to raise the cap on THC level in medicinal products from 0.5% to 5%, and expand the eligible conditions to include chronic pain and PTSD for the first time. But the measure was narrowed significantly in the Senate, where chronic pain was removed and the new THC limit was lowered to 1%. Republican state Sens. Bryan Hughes, chair of the senate committee that heard the bill, and Charles Schwertner, the Senate sponsor, did not respond to a request for comment on why the bill was narrowed. Some opponents to expanding medical marijuana legalization have said they believe it may lead to more recreational use of cannabis.  

Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB 1535 into law on Tuesday.

Veterans, advocates, and doctors say the 1% cap on THC is far lower than many who suffer from pain, PTSD, and other ailments actually need. Even the 5% allowed in the original House bill is a fraction of what Edwards says she would need to fully treat her symptoms. 

In 2005, Edwards, a first generation U.S. citizen, met a military recruiter at her El Paso high school during her junior year. 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. 

Four years later, she was deployed. On the way to Kandahar, Afghanistan, she says her flight was delayed because of a rocket attack. “It wasn’t even an hour, and then there was another rocket attack. There’s an alarm that goes off, and in an English voice, the lady says, ‘rocket attack, rocket attack,’ and at that point you just dropped to the floor,” she says. “So that was our welcome.” Edwards says she didn’t sleep at all that first night, as rockets continued, injuring people nearby, and triggering requests for blood donations.  

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 came to realize that the medications she was prescribed did not help her condition. Every medicine came with a new side effect, like extreme weight gain, drowsiness, dizziness, and nausea. Soon she was taking more medications to treat those side effects. At the most, Edwards was taking up to 23 pills a day of six to seven medications.

She also took Botox for migraines, which required her to receive 42 injections between her neck, shoulders, cranium, and forehead on three different occasions. Botox provided some relief, but did not completely stop her migraines. “You kind of just lose hope that you’re going to find something that’s going to help you,” she says. 

As a teenager, Edwards first tried cannabis using a homemade watermelon bong. Then in 2015, Edwards tried medical cannabis for the first time, while on vacation in California. “I remember just this kind of silence within my body,” Edwards says of the experience. “The pain, the anxiety, just so many things that I was going through on a daily basis, were just gone.” 

Since then, she’s advocated for expanded access to legal medical marijuana back home in Texas, and studied its impact on veterans while at graduate school at the University of Texas at El Paso and at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. While she’s glad PTSD was added as an eligible condition under the new legislation this year, she says she’s frustrated with the still-strict limits and the slow process of legalization. “When I raised my hand in Fort Bliss, Texas, saying that I would serve my country, I don’t remember picking and choosing who I would serve and protect,” she says. 

The new law is set to go into effect 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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