AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Merits of marijuana, its medicinal value and steps to decriminalization in the Lone Star State and nationwide came out from the shadows and into the spotlight Friday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin.
As part of SXSW’s series on “cannabusiness,” former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner discussed the likely paths to national legalization and the challenges and opportunities those profiting from the green stuff face. The Ohio Republican participated in a discussion with Kevin Murphy, chairman and CEO of Acreage Holdings, a marijuana and cannabis investment firm.
“I thought: I’m probably not going to do this but I’d like to learn more about it,” Boehner said.
Medical marijuana has been legalized in 33 states plus the District of Columbia, and 11 of those states have also initiated an adult-use program.
“The American people clearly are changing their views of this product. And as they do, this industry is going to grow frankly exponentially over the next 10 or 20 years,” Boehner said. He explained he had not tried weed but after doing more research, wanted to become an advocate for people who reap the benefits of pot’s medicinal purposes. Boehner said lawmakers in Washington — whether intentionally or not — have gotten in the way of the process.
In Texas, lawmakers have renewed the effort to include more legal medical uses or decriminalize marijuana use.
State Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) filed legislation in February (House Bill 1365) to amend the Health and Safety Code to allow possession of medical cannabis for individuals with cancer, autism, epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It is heartbreaking to see so many Texans having to struggle because the most effective treatment for their illness is illegal in this state,” Lucio III wrote in a statement after filing the bill.
“If a patient has a debilitating medical condition, they should have the freedom to try cannabis if it can help them,” Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy said last month.
Some law enforcement agencies are wary of legislation that would expand drug use. Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner, chairman of legislative committee for the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said his group does not support the further legalization of marijuana in the state.
“In our efforts to keep the peace, deputy sheriffs routinely encounter persons who appear highly intoxicated on marijuana or marijuana-edible products,” Skinner wrote in a February email, declaring the association did not support HB 1365. “These individuals are generally are a danger to themselves, and when driving, they are clearly a danger to others.”
House Bill 63 by State Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) would eliminate arrest, jail time and criminal record for low-level marijuana possession.
“HB 63 isn’t legalization or medical expansion, it’s an enforcement alternative is just to keep marijuana illegal but enforce those laws with a civil penalty instead of a criminal one,” Moody told lawmakers at a House criminal jurisprudence committee hearing earlier this month. He said there are over 75,000 arrests per year for marijuana possession in Texas, which is “more than any other state.”
The Texas Republican Party included supporting a civil penalty and not a criminal offense for adults to “possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time,” as part of its platform.
Moody’s effort was met with bipartisan support in the legislature this session but has faced resistance from law enforcement.
“Decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana is just something the state of Texas should not accept,” North Richland Hills Police Chief Jimmy Perdue told lawmakers earlier this month as he testified in opposition of the bill.
While Texas sits in the middle of a marijuana tug-of-war, business owners like Morris Denton stand to gain with expanded medical use. He described his company, Compassionate Cultivation, as the “leading medical cannabis company in Texas.”
“We have to do things in concert with the legislature and our regulator in terms of the market we can serve,” said Denton, the company’s CEO. “But we believe that in Texas as an outcome of this legislative session, there will be some expansion, and we are prepared to work collaboratively with the state in order to provide the best medicine, the highest quality medicine to the patients that they deem necessary and credible for participating in this program.”
Denton explained Compassionate Cultivation received its provisional license in May 2017. It received formal license approval that October. His team planted its first set of seeds that afternoon. Their first harvest was in Jan. 2018 and the company sold its first medicine the following month.
“It has been a wild journey,” he chuckled.
Denton said Texas can learn from successes and failures other states make related to cannabis, whether it be opening up regulations, allowing businesses to sell too soon, or creating “scenarios where it becomes either chaotic for the patient or for the doctors or for the business.”
Denton advocates for keeping doctors in the driver’s seat on behalf of patients.
“Taking it out of a bureaucratic legislative process about who makes that decision, who can get the benefit from this medicine is something that has to happen. We are here to work collaboratively with the state.”
Other panels throughout the weekend included a session on physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being as they related to marijuana use. That discussion featured herbal-based entrepreneur and former professional football athlete, Ricky Williams, a former Texas Longhorn. He shared his experience testing positive for weed during his football career, which ultimately forced him to retire from the game amid suspensions and fines. Williams is now an advocate for pot’s restorative properties.
“What I’m most pleased about is this is something that caused a lot of embarrassment and pain in my life and humiliation in my life and my biggest thing is I don’t think people should have to go through this,” Williams said after the panel.
He said he hoped more people would share their experiences to create further awareness. According to Williams:
“There’s such a taboo and so much shame around cannabis. The only stories you hear are the negative stories. If more people were willing to share their positive stories I think we’d see a different reality.”
He touched on his journey on how he went from being a star player turned entrepreneur, saying that the future is promising not just for his business, but for people to get healing by using it.
“You’re starting to see politicians show up and speak about cannabis and I think it’s all about the people voicing their opinions and saying this isn’t as bad as we’ve been taught, it’s actually helping people and you’re seeing it reach the politicians,” Williams explained.
Politicians like Boehner.
“People who come up to me every single day for the last year has shocked me,” the former Speaker said.
Chelsea Moreno and Todd Bynum contributed to this report.