Is it inherently Texan to legalize marijuana?
July 5, 2017
(The original can be found here.)
By Dom DiFurio, Web Producer
Lisa Pittman is one of the first attorneys in Texas to specialize in medical marijuana law. She came to the industry not from the recreational side, but as a mother seeking treatment for her child with epilepsy.
Pittman practices in Austin with Feldmann Nagel LLC, a Colorado law firm with a cannibis practice, and she was involved in supporting Texas’ House Bill 2107, the state’s first medical marijuana bill to pass committee. This is a conversation we had, condensed for clarity, about what it's like to get involved in Texas' slow-growing world of medical marijuana and the drug's future here.
How did you come to specialize in marijuana law?
In 2014, I was reading the Senate Bill 339 [Texas’ Compassionate Use Act enacted in 2015] testimony of mothers of children with epilepsy. My own daughter had seizures when she was little. I had taken her to the top two pediatric neurologists in Houston and I was given conflicting diagnoses, conflicting treatment plans. One of them wanted to medicate her up to the gills and told me, 'I’m sorry but you will not have the same child after this because of all the side effects the medication would cause her.' I went through quite an odyssey with that.
So when I was reading this testimony, I could truly empathize with the treatment decisions these mothers were having to make, because you will do anything for your child. I was fortunate that my daughter had only occasional seizures, but I was reading about children that had 20 or 30 seizures a day. Just really devastating cases, and how they were going to have to leave their families and their communities and their churches and their schools to seek treatment in a state where this CBD [cannabidiol] oil is legal, which has been shown to reduce or eliminate seizures in certain cases of epilepsy.
That just lit the fire under me. This is a potential medication that’s being withheld from these children. I’m gonna get involved; I can’t let that stand. So I started to pay more attention to it on the down low; I wasn’t really intending to pursue a career in it or anything.
Then, I found declining motivation and satisfaction in my work as a commercial litigator. So, I started to look at opening a whole health wellness center for women in Austin, called the Well Women Group. I wanted to provide a real legitimate place for women to come learn about this, to provide childcare on site. I decided to go to Denver to attend this conference called Women Grow to find out more about cannabis.
Based on what I read on epilepsy I knew it had some success there. I just wanted to find out more about it because to me cannabis was just another plant that provides remedies.
I was telling the attorney in the office next to me what I was going to do. He does some counsel work for Feldmann Nagel out of Colorado, and he told me that they were looking to take their marijuana practice national. So while I was out there I met them, purely out of respect for him.
Just about every legal industry is dominated by men and it’s really difficult for women to break that glass ceiling and to really excel as leaders. Especially if you’re a mother.
When I was at the Women Grow conference, I noticed that there were only a few lawyers there. I thought, well, hey, this might be a rare opportunity in an industry that is not yet owned by any one demographic to break through and blaze a trail as a leader and an early expert and authority on a niche topic.
What did your law firm see in Texas? Obviously, they saw a worthwhile opportunity when they brought you on. A lot of people here think marijuana in Texas is hopeless.
Well, Texas is the prize. It is a huge market, second to California. It is also considered a leader among the Southern states. If Texas were to legalize, it would be very lucrative for anyone to be practicing law in that area here. Although it was a ways off, with any great reward comes great risk, and that’s coming in early and scoping out the market. The firm was already here in this first round of legislation and working with investors.
For the next round of this legislative session, they were placing their bets; they wanted boots on the ground here to continue that work they had started a couple years ago.
When do you see actual businesses getting up and running under the current Compassionate Use Program?
The Department of Public Safety is required to issue at least three licenses to cultivators to begin producing medicine for a very small subset of children with intractable epilepsy by September 1. This law was passed in 2015. The regulations to implement the law were not finalized until February of 2017. Now we are only a couple of months away from the deadline to issue those three licenses, and the program is perhaps about to be embroiled in some litigation because of how the application process and the rules adoption procedure were handled.
You’ve said the Compassionate Use Program is inadequate and you think full medical legalization is necessary. Why?
One of the inadequacies under the current law is that doctors have to prescribe rather than recommend. A doctor cannot legally prescribe a Schedule I substance. So that is a problem because it is a threat to their prescription writing privileges and even their state license to practice medicine.
So who in their right mind would follow through with that?
Right. We’re probably going to see very few doctors willing to stick their necks out for this. So there are groups working in Texas working to fix that aspect. Perhaps in special session, but I’m not that optimistic that will happen.
Also, the conditions need to be expanded to include a broader range of illnesses and symptoms. The law needs to be changed to allow whole plant medicine, instead of a legislatively spliced plant that only allows this low THC, high CBD oil, which, by the way, won’t even treat some of these children that the law is written to treat. The ones that have the most serious cases of epilepsy need that THC. There’s something about that THC compound that helps to eliminate the seizures.
Even if these little tweaks were made to the law to fix it, I don’t believe the medicine would help a lot of them.
What does the public need to know about marijuana’s future in Texas?
Public opinion polling, especially that Quinnipac poll, is showing that public approval of cannabis, whether decriminalization, or medical or even recreational, is gaining unprecedented public support. And the sort of reefer madness punitive attitude that we grew up with is starting to fade. But politicians still think that their constituents think that way. In concern for their next election, they’re fearful to vote for marijuana.
So what I think really needs to change in Texas for us to see a change in the future, is for the public to look at who their representatives are, look at their voting records and make sure they get people into office who are not afraid to vote for marijuana or who believe in its capacity to help suffering.
Do you see a future for recreational in Texas?
I almost see the federal government descheduling it before Texas legalizes a recreational concept. But on the other hand, because in our great republic of Texas we believe in doing things our own way, there is the possibility that Texas could do what some other states have done and simply treat it like alcohol. And just have it be another highly regulated industry that is able to be researched for medical reasons if need be. Or profited upon by companies who are working in the industry and to reap the great tax revenue from it.
So although the current political climate suggests we will never see recreational, climates change and the tax revenue being brought in by other states isn’t going to go unnoticed forever. There are a lot of business and political interests in Texas that are very interested in creating a robust industry.
I actually believe the framework for the statute contemplates a free, open-market system in a way that some of the other states that allow recreational do not. Texas could take a turn and still has an infrastructure within its statute to allow competition the way Texas enjoys and believes.
You’re saying it’s inherently Texan to legalize weed?
This Q&A was conducted, edited and condensed by Dallas Morning News editorial board memeber Dom Difurio. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lisa Pittman is a lawyer in with Feldmann Nagel in Houston specializing in medical marijuana. Website: colo-lawyers.com
CORRECTION: The regulations to implement the Texas' Compassionate Use Program were finalized in February 2017. A prior version of this story incorrectly said 2015. Also, Lisa Pittman's office is in Austin, not Houston.