420 and Fort Worth: The City's Changing View on Marijuana

With bills blazing through the Texas Legislature and advocates shouting its medicinal virtues, when it comes to marijuana legalization, is the Lone Star State on the precipice of turning a new leaf?

On a Sunday afternoon in Dallas, a strange juxtaposition occurred. Late brunchers, enjoying mimosas and adobe pie at Tacos and Tequila, were sprinkled amongst a sea of advocates listening to charismatic rallying cries. Numerous people, many of whom with notes in hand, stood up to a single microphone and spoke with righteous verbosity about the legalization of marijuana in the state of Texas. The rally was the year’s first National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) membership meeting.

“Who wants marijuana decriminalized in Texas?” cannabis advocate Austin Zamhariri, clad in a “Big Lebowski” T-shirt, asked the board members of the DFW chapter of NORML.

The upstairs bar, full of marijuana advocates, whooped, whistled and applauded.

“Good news. There’s a bill for you,” Zamhariri said. He then asked the sea of people –– many wearing shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Texas Raised, Texas Blazed” –– about medical marijuana, industrial hemp and full legalization. The answer to each was mass approval via applause and cheers.

There are currently more than 15 bills or resolutions before the Texas Senate and House that deal in some way with the growth, cultivation and use of cannabis. While each bill has a long road ahead before ratification, their looming presence has already made its way to Fort Worth.

To name a few, Senator Jose Rodriguez of El Paso has authored two joint resolutions and two bills, including Senate Joint Resolutions 7 and 8 and Senate Bills 90 and 116. These proposals run the gamut of a state’s process to achieve cannabis legalization, including regulating possession, cultivation and sales; the authorization of medical marijuana; and the legalization of hemp growth. And House Bill 63, authored by Representative Joe Moody, would make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil sanction and not a criminal offense.

Moody’s bill would need to create something that doesn’t exist in our present laws. Unlike other states, Texas does not currently have civil sanctions, which carry far lesser penalties that criminal offenses.

“In Texas, everything is a crime, basically,” Moody said. “Even your traffic citations are criminal offenses. So, we have to create a civil sanctioning system that didn’t exist before.”

He introduced a version of his current bill in the 2015 session. It was voted out of committee on a bipartisan vote but not scheduled for a vote on the house floor. In 2017, it was voted out of committee again with even broader bipartisan support and was scheduled for debate on the house floor very late in the session.

“It was one of the hundreds of bills that got caught up in the political blowup that caused a lot of bills to fail at the end of the session,” Moody said.

He argues HB 63 is good public policy and a fiscally sound way of dealing with cannabis possession. The 70,000 yearly arrests made for cannabis possession are an enormous use of county tax dollars, county jail space, courtroom time, prosecutor time and law enforcement time.

“It’s just not worth it,” he said.

This abundance of bills has caused a stir of excitement among the marijuana advocates. Daniel Mehler, half of the law firm Roper and Mehler –– the “Dopest Lawyers in Town” –– doesn’t share the optimism.

“It’s almost become like a fad amongst the legislators, and everyone wants their own name on it. I think the legislature is dividing its attention,” Mehler said. “Rather than have a bunch of legislators come together and co-sponsor one or two singular proposals, we have all of these bills scattered out to a bunch of committees, trying to get hearings, trying to move forward.”

A lack of dedicated legislator investment in these bills will ultimately hinder them, according to Mehler.

“We have a bunch of legislators who I don’t think actually care about how these bills play out,” he said. “I think they just want to be able to go home to their districts come July and say, ‘Look what I introduced.’”

Moody believes several things have changed since he first brought the bill before congress back in 2015. Most notably, the Republican Party of Texas recently added a plank to their platform showing support for a civil sanction for small amounts of marijuana.

“Along with that, people from all over the political spectrum are beginning to change their minds on this issue,” Moody said, claiming if it were up to Texas voters, legal marijuana would be law today.

A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found 62 percent of Americans favor marijuana legalization — double the 31 percent who favored it in 2000.

And politicians have responded to this changing tide with legislative efforts. Currently, 33 states and Washington, D.C., have comprehensive medical cannabis programs. Only 10 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized small amounts of marijuana according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Dr. M. Scott Perry with patient

Even Texas has a narrow cannabis program. The Compassionate Use Act of 2015 allowed a small number of doctors to prescribe low-THC cannabis to patients with intractable epilepsy. While the legislators work to ratify these cannabis-based bills, cannabidiol (CBD) — a chemical found in the embattled herb — has carved out an interesting place in the health of Fort Worth. Epileptologist Dr. M. Scott Perry, the medical director of neurology at Cook Children’s Medical Center, has studied the effect of cannabidiol on his young epileptic patients.

According to Perry, there are many different types of cannabis plants, and each of those plants has hundreds of different chemicals. The cannabidiol is typically derived from the hemp plant that is high in cannabidiol (CBD) and low in the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). While a believer in some of its positive effects, Perry is also a pragmatist and believes we need to temper our expectations when it comes to cannabis as a potential cure-all.

“The internet will tell us it will do everything. There is no reason for me to have a job anymore because it cures every problem in the world, apparently,” Perry said. “It may help a lot of those things, who knows? There’s no good proof. That’s the problem.”

The studies Perry was involved with were industry-sponsored pharmaceutical trials of Epidiolex, the epilepsy medication made by Greenwich Biosciences. Epidiolex is made under strict standards and has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“Their plants are clones of each other, so every plant is genetically identical to the other plant. They’re all grown in a very regimented process,” Perry said. “The water’s the same, the temperature is the same, the amount of light they get is the same. The process is very standardized.”

These trials of cannabidiol effectiveness in children begin with a baseline period. Nothing is changed in the patient’s daily life for a month, and they count the seizures each child has in that month. If the child meets the criteria –– typically about four to six seizures in a month and normal blood work –– they are then randomized and given the drug or placebo.

These studies are all double blind, so neither Perry nor the patients know if they’re taking the drugs or the placebo. At the end of each three-month study, they compare the outcomes.

“As far as seizure control, we found the average seizure reduction is somewhere between 40 and 50 percent,” Perry said. “That’s not bad, but it’s also not any different from any other seizure drug out there. Essentially, every seizure drug has about a 50 percent reduction in seizures in 50 percent of people in the studies.”

The number of people who are seizure-free is much smaller. In most of the trials that have 100 to 200 people, only about 2 to 3 percent claim they are seizure-free. The people who reported 75 percent or 95 percent seizure reduction are in the 7 to 15 percent range.

“So, it does work for some people,” Perry said. “It just was not any more spectacular than any other drug. Which we hoped it would have been.”

Perry cautions against solely relying on information from the internet and other anecdotal claims not supported by peer-reviewed data.

“The first thing I tell my families to understand is that is very biased information. That’s not to say it’s false information; it’s biased information,” he said. “People who have something to tell you and tell you how well they’re doing are, in fact, the ones doing well. There are lots and lots of people that have probably used it that aren’t better at all. But there’s no story to share. You don’t see that story.”

On the flip side, the owners and operators of Fort Worth’s burgeoning CBD oil industry claim their customers have reported excellent health results. A former nurse and Fort Worth American Shaman franchise owner, Lora Gollahon, opened her CBD shop near the Ridgmar Mall in April 2018, following two car accidents, which resulted in two major surgeries and screws and plates in her neck.

“I’ve been taking a lot of opioid medication, as well as muscle relaxers, since 2007,” she said. “When I was introduced to CBD, we did some research, and we really liked the way this company manufactured their products and their high quality. It helped me reduce my pain medications down drastically. I was taking four to five pills a day; I now take one or none per day.”

She also hears of the wonders CBD is doing for her customers.

“We have a lot of family members that come in and purchase a product who have personal testimony regarding seizures, ADD, ADHD, migraines, you name it,” she said. “We’ve got personal testimonies that prove that these products work.”

Trey and Lisa Gardner-Phillips

Thrive Apothecary, tucked into The Foundry District at 212 Carroll St., opened back in October 2018. The shop, specializing in CBD-based products for people and their pets, is the brainchild of board-certified doctor Lisa Gardner-Phillips and her husband, retired Fort Worth police sergeant Trey Phillips.

Before opening the shop, Gardner-Phillips noticed her patients weren’t benefiting from the prescriptions she wrote for them.

“Your average person isn’t happy,” she said. “They’re going to doctors who are prescribing pills, and it’s the same old thing.”

After discovering a patient of hers was abusing opioids, she stopped writing prescriptions for these traditional medications.

“And that was it. I am not doing this anymore. There has got to be a better solution,” she said. “This is happening in Fort Worth. Prescriptions are getting written for Vicodin and OxyContin. It’s happening in our backyard.”

The two then discovered CBD oil. Now, Dr. Gardner-Phillips believes everyone — pets included — can benefit from it.

“She stopped writing prescriptions years ago, so when CBD presented itself, we felt like that was a good solution to offer people before committing to a life of prescription pills,” Trey said.

“You’re getting the proven medical therapeutic benefits of cannabis without the psychoactive effects of THC; you don’t have the high, but you have all the medical benefits.”

Whether medical marijuana is mostly hype or honest-to-goodness effective, the cries for legalization have become deafening. Shaun McAlister, the executive director of DFW NORML, believes Texans deserve better than our current system, and a working medical marijuana program is one of their largest priorities.

“Medical marijuana isn’t for me. It’s for my grandmother or someone else who doesn’t know where to go about this, who saw Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and they want to try marijuana, but they don’t know where to begin,” he said. “We want to make sure that those people have the opportunity to have a conversation with their doctors, and then they can go to a place that is safe.”

Health claims aside, an industry boom is coming, according to Phillips and Gollahan. There may only be a handful of dedicated CBD shops now, but many retail facilities are now selling CBD oil-based products.

“They’ve got CBD oil products at the nature store in the Ridgmar Mall and CBD products are being sold in retail stores all over Fort Worth,” Gollahan said. “I know of some chefs who are incorporating it into some of their products that they cook for their customers at the customer’s request. It’s going to be booming.”

While the unprecedented amount of bills have many people looking to the possibility of a legal cannabis future. The present has yet to catch up.

During his time as a SWAT officer, Trey Phillips ran very dangerous, dynamic entry search warrants for marijuana. Now, he says the culture within the police department is starting to change.

“In Tarrant County, marijuana possession is constantly reduced down to citations or time served,” he said. “There’s certainly not enough room in Tarrant County jails or Texas prisons for possession of marijuana. It’s regulated down to a ticket, and you’re out the door.”

But Sgt. Chris Britt, spokesman for the Fort Worth Police Department, said there was currently no decriminalization of marijuana.

“We don’t make the laws; we just enforce them,” he said. “As they stand in Texas, [marijuana] is still illegal.”

As the law concerning small, usable amounts of marijuana stands, possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor that could earn you 180 days in jail and up to $2,000 in fines. For 2 to 4 ounces, the jail time jumps to a year, and the fine could hit $4,000. Any amount from 4 ounces to 5 pounds is a felony ranging from the mandatory minimum sentence of 180 days to 2 years in prison with a fine of $10,000.

According to the Fort Worth police, there were 2,379 marijuana arrests in 2017 and 2,293 arrests in 2018. SB 63 could bring that number down by removing possession of small amounts of marijuana from criminal penalties to civil sanctions.

“Which means it is no longer a crime. It’s still not lawful, but you are not going to be arrested; there is no criminal history, there is no driver’s license suspension or all the other things that come along with that,” Moody said. “All of those just won’t exist anymore for that simple possession.”

The boom of supposedly legal cannabidiol is in a legal gray area itself. To be legal in Texas, any CBD product must contain no more than .3 percent THC. Any more than that and Tarrant County Criminal District Attorney Sharen Wilson will prosecute. In a statement released on Feb. 5, Wilson stated that CBD oil is only legal by a doctor’s prescription to treat epilepsy under the Compassionate Use Act of 2015.

“In May 2017, the Texas commissioner of health added ‘marijuana extract’ to Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act,” the statement says. “This criminalized any possession of an ‘extract’ from a plant of the genus Cannabis and is the basis for the current illegal status of non-prescribed CBD oil.”

In 2018, Congress passed the farm bill that reclassified industrial hemp containing less than .3 percent concentration of THC. But the only way for unprescribed CBD oil to be legal in Texas is for Commissioner of Health John Hellerstedt to remove marijuana extracts from the controlled substances schedule, according to Wilson’s statement.

“The criminal district attorney does not have the authority to change the law. We encourage those with strong opinions about CBD oil to contact Commissioner Hellerstedt’s office or your local legislators to inform them of your views,” the statement says. “Our office filed almost 50,000 criminal cases last year. We have not spent and do not expect to spend significant resources on cases involving CBD oil.”

Wilson’s office declined to clarify this final paragraph of the statement.

Mehler argues this is impacting a lot of unwitting people.

“The biochemistry of cannabis is such that CBD is never produced without THC being produced. They’re produced together at the same time in nature. You’ll never find them separately in a natural state,” he said. “We’re seeing a whole bunch of inadvertent felonies being committed.”

The CBD shop owners of Fort Worth also took notice of Wilson’s statement.

Gollahon argues Wilson just doesn’t know what the farm bill means.

“Ever since the Tarrant County district attorney made her little speech about wanting to prosecute any and all people taking it, using it and selling it, I mean, she’s just not educated on exactly what the farm bill means,” she said. “A lot more people will utilize this product once they get over the fear that they’re not going to be arrested and prosecuted.”

She went on to say her products contain .03 percent THC, well below the legal limit.

After Wilson’s statement, Trey Phillips of Thrive Apothecary penned an open letter addressed to the Honorable Criminal District Attorneys of Texas, the Honorable Chiefs of Police of Texas and the Honorable Sheriffs of Texas. The letter claims the district attorney’s office has “prematurely and wrongly determined CBD products derived from hemp are illegal in this state,” and argued that the federal farm bill removed hemp and hemp extracts from the purview of controlled substances. The letter also states Texas law has always mirrored federal law, and federal law preempts state law, even should they conflict. Phillips concludes his letter by saying the district attorney’s office has no basis saying hemp-derived CBD oil is illegal.

“Any further such statements or notices, seizures of product, criminal prosecution of any kind or the filing of a lawsuit attempting to enjoin us from engaging in our lawful business will be regarded as an abuse of process, seen as malicious prosecution, and any defense or counterclaims will be aggressively pursued,” the letter says.

Regardless of the current legal issues and gray areas, Mehler, Moody and Phillips all believe marijuana legalization is inevitable. McAlister argues his organization has never been closer and further from what they are trying to accomplish, and Texas is nowhere near full legalization.

“The worst thing people can do is to think it can happen without their help, without their involvement. And to try to let somebody else handle it for them,” he said. “Those conversations are still really far off, unfortunately. We have some legislation being considered, but they’re very unlikely to happen. It’s a constitutional amendment, and those are laughably tough to pass in the state of Texas.”

Whatever the hurdles facing these bills, Moody doesn’t believe that these issues are going away, nor should they.

“That doesn’t mean that conversation won’t continue. In fact, it needs to continue,” he said. “It needs to get louder and stronger. That’s how you get things done.”

by Joseph Richardson