Jose Menendez speaks of the Battle of the Alamo.
State Sen. José Menéndez Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The 86th Texas Legislature will convene Jan. 8, but early bill filing began Nov. 12, with more than 400 bills submitted for consideration by Texas lawmakers by noon that day.

State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) filed Senate Bill 90 to increase the number of debilitating medical conditions that qualify for use of medical marijuana under the Texas Compassionate Use Program to include conditions such as cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and spinal cord injury.

The bill marks the senator’s third attempt at passing comprehensive marijuana legislation that would allow doctors to recommend cannabis to patients in a state that has resisted liberalizing its marijuana laws even as many states across the nation are allowing more medical and recreational use of the drug.

Texans’ objection to marijuana use has a long history. On June 14, 1915, El Paso became the first city in the nation to outlaw the use of marijuana because it was considered dangerous, according to the Library of Congress.

During the 2015 Legislature, Menéndez filed Senate Bill 1839, the first comprehensive medical cannabis legislation in the history of Texas, and co-authored Senate Bill 339, to allow low-THC cannabidiol oil (known as CBD) use to help control seizures for people with intractable epilepsy. The latter passed, the former did not, so Menéndez tried again with Senate Bill 269 in 2017; it failed to pass despite gaining bipartisan support.

Menéndez began his public service career in 1997 when he was elected to the San Antonio City Council as the District 6 representative. He was then elected to serve as State representative for House District 124 in 2000. Since 2015, Menéndez has been a State senator serving District 26.

In an interview with the Rivard Report, Menéndez discussed his commitment to comprehensive medical marijuana reform in Texas, its potential to positively impact individual health and economic growth, and thoughts on legalizing statewide recreational use.

Rivard Report: You have submitted comprehensive medical marijuana reform bills in the last three sessions of the Texas Legislature and co-authored many smaller bills aimed at decriminalizing possession of marijuana in small amounts and increasing medicinal access. Why is increasing access to this polarizing drug important to you?

José Menéndez: The first time I heard about medical marijuana it was about six years ago when my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. The treatment and medications he was on put him in a stupor; he couldn’t eat due to pain, had no appetite, and was nauseated most of the time. For him to be out of pain, he would have to be on narcotics and therefore not be himself. My family began researching medical marijuana as an alternative to opioid narcotics and found it has been used to help people with glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, and has even been used in some instances to transition people off narcotic painkillers.

After learning the facts, it seems hypocritical to me that it is legal to write a prescription for fentanyl when it has ability to kill someone and is akin to heroin in its rates of addiction, but marijuana, a natural plant with medicinal qualities that I have never heard of causing a person to overdose or become addicted, is prohibited. I think medical professionals and their patients should be the ones deciding what to prescribe. Let’s just let the doctors prescribe just like every other medication. If we as a State are in the business of controlling dangerous drugs, then we should make fentanyl and a myriad of others narcotics illegal. Why is there a double standard when it comes to marijuana?

RR: You described Texas as “unbelievably slow” when it comes to progress toward comprehensive medical marijuana legislation. What is influencing this pace?

Menéndez : If we were to pass legislation in this next session, Texas would be the 33rd state in the nation with access to medicinal marijuana. Every state around us, even Oklahoma and Arkansas – very conservative states – have access. One big step for progress would be to have the federal government declassify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no currently accepted medical use and high potential for abuse. If this happened, it would open up opportunities for more experimentation and scientific research by pharmaceutical companies, scientists, and doctors, that is prohibited currently due to its classification.

Those opposing this legislation often point to the lack of peer-reviewed research to say that there is no science to back up the effectiveness of this drug, to which I have two responses: One, there is research, just not any based in United States because the federal government here made its classification so that everyone who uses it is breaking the law. And two, if there is not proof that the drug does anything helpful, why did we create and pass the bill for compassionate use for children with epilepsy? The reality is, people need to think conscientiously; people with debilitating medical conditions aren’t cruising in the park smoking a joint. They are taking their medication in their house, and they are feeling better before they actually do anything. These patients aren’t looking to get stoned.

RR: How might Texas stand to benefit from increasing access to medical marijuana around the state?

Menéndez: I think the state would definitely see a benefit from the ability to regulate and tax the sale of medicinal cannabis. For some people, however, that might be why they are part of the opposition, because you would see a significant drop in the use of opioid narcotics. Instead of painkillers that can hurt your liver, cause addiction, and present a host of other medical problems, people would use something less dangerous, resulting in a drop in the sales for other drugs.

If the State creates rules for dispensing and taxing, of course the state would benefit. The reality is, if Texas really wanted to blow the doors wide open for revenue we would be looking into legalizing recreational marijuana. I am not pushing that; that is not my goal. I am here for medical patients who want relief and do not want to be limited to the harsh narcotics on the market today.

The fact that we passed the Compassionate Use Act for use with children with epilepsy – that’s good for them, their parents, and the people who love them. I’m glad that happened. But there are so many other patients who can benefit, including patients who may harm themselves and who cannot control their bodies. I have mothers begging us to expand the use of medical marijuana, and I think it’s important for us to pass a law that allows the doctors to decide. How is it that we as elected officials – politicians, legislators – how do we decide that we know better than a doctor does? Medical professionals should be deciding.

RR: Since you first proposed a comprehensive medical marijuana reform bill in 2015, much has changed regarding bipartisan support, including the Texas Republican Party passing a platform that includes marijuana decriminalization and an expansion of the Compassionate Use Act. What is impacting this dramatic shift in policy?

Menéndez: Unfortunately, the opioid epidemic and its devastating effects throughout the state had really opened people’s eyes to what kinds of drugs we should be monitoring more so than others, and those who had been keeping their heads in the sand when it came to medicinal marijuana are now coming out in support. They are also paying attention to what their constituents want – and there is a great deal of support for legalizing cannabis in the state for people with debilitating medical conditions. There are potential jobs here, there is potential to improve people’s quality of life and, if regulated appropriately, will only have a positive impact in Texas.

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.