Marijuana Legalization 2016: Texas Authorizes Cannabis Dispensaries, First One Won't Open Until 2017

Marijuana legalization has finally arrived in Texas, but the state isn't ready for it. State officials say it won't be until after 2016 before the first dispensaries will be authorized to sell cannabis products.

Last June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a marijuana legalization law creating the Compassionate Use Program, with the Department of Public Safety in charge of implementing the rules for the program. The Texas law, which went into effect January 10, authorizes the sale and distribution of low-THC marijuana products like cannabis oil for medicinal purposes.

Texans who suffer from epilepsy will have access to medical marijuana.
Last summer, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a law legalizing the use of some cannabis products to help people who suffer from epilepsy. [Photo by Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images]Starting in July, the department will be working on finding vendors to help establish the guidelines for the eventual registry of physicians and dispensaries to prescribe and distribute medical marijuana. No licensing applications will be taken from any potential dispensaries until the specific approval rules are complete.

The department expects the first dispensary license to be issued sometime in June of next year. The Texas law mandates at least three licenses be approved by September, 2017.

Even after new dispensaries open, the legal weed will only be available to a small group of people. Under the Texas marijuana program, only individuals diagnosed with intractable epilepsy are authorized to use the low-THC cannabis products as an alternative treatment. Patients who suffer from this rare form of epilepsy experience uncontrollable seizures not alleviated by traditional drugs.

Other states have approved medical marijuana for the treatment of epilepsy. In a previous Inquisitr report, the state of Idaho is currently allowing some children suffering from a severe form of epilepsy to take an experimental drug made from cannabis oil.

A low-THC marijuana product, like cannabis oil, contains a minimum of 10 percent cannabidiol, but not more than 0.5 percent THC. Under the Texas rules, a low-THC product can only be prescribed if the epileptic patient has tried at least two other drugs without success.

"There's no question that you do have to go through a lot of hurdles before you're eligible to receive treatment under this particular legislation," said Senator Jose Rodriguez, coauthor of the medical marijuana legalization law.

Colt DeMorris, the executive director of a marijuana advocacy group, says the rules governing the Compassionate Use Program are too restrictive.

"It doesn't help patients. I mean the patients that really could use it and there's so many different ailments that are left out that it could treat," DeMorris said.

He says not only is the law written to limit cannabis products to only patients suffering from a certain type of epilepsy, but they must also receive prescriptions from multiple government-approved neurologists.

Senator Rodriguez does agree that medical marijuana laws in Texas need to be expanded and plans to open up the debate in the next legislative session.

"It will be hard for the governor or anyone else to oppose this particular step of permitting marijuana for medicinal purposes. It's just something that I think scientifically and medically is proving to be very beneficial for people with different kinds of conditions," Rodriguez said.

Medical marijuana dispensaries will sell low-THC cannabis products in Texas.
Cannabis oil will be available to some epileptic patients in Texas sometime mid-2017. [Image via AP Photo/Carla K. Johnson]Under the tough restrictions of the Texas medical marijuana law, many industry watchers wonder if there will be enough patients to sustain the program. Dispensaries in both Illinois and New York are having a difficult time staying open due to the low number of patients buying cannabis treatments. Even some doctors are shying away from participating for fear of unwanted attention from the federal government.

However, many marijuana advocates remain hopeful the Compassionate Use Program will get changed, allowing more access to the program. Until then, only epilepsy patients will benefit from the program, and they will have to wait until the state figures out exactly how to implement the law.

As of 2016, 23 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana, but smoking cannabis for either medical or recreational purposes still remains illegal in Texas.

[Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]