Texas’ First Marijuana Dispensary Spurs Hope Of Republicans Jumping Aboard Legal Weed

Photo Credit: Ed Andrieski

For Morris Denton and epilepsy patients across Texas, February 8 will be a big day. It is when Compassionate Cultivation, a licensed medical cannabis company, is scheduled to open up the doors of the state’s first retail marijuana dispensary—in Manchaca, a suburb of Austin.

To get to this point has been anything but straightforward. It took hundreds of pages of application materials, endless planning, hiring skilled chemists and even designers who could make an epilepsy-safe layout. It also required figuring out a precise formula to create a CBD oil—or cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana often used for medical purposes—that could help treat intractable epilepsy while following several complex state regulations.

When Denton, the CEO of Compassionate Cultivation, and his team found out they were officially licensed last Halloween, there were mixed feelings. “We went from ‘oh my god’ to ‘oh shit,'” he said. “Now we got to get working, we’ve got to get busy.”

His company is one of only three to be awarded licenses (after 43 groups turned in applications) to produce medical marijuana in Texas, as the state takes its first cautious steps toward seeing what the drug can do. Medical marijuana in the state is strictly and tightly defined—only “low-THC cannabis,” only for Texan patients, only for intractable epilepsy. Patients can’t grow their own, and smoking is still illegal.

The conservative state’s optimism—albeit cautious optimism—about the program could be a sign that the issue is becoming a bipartisan one. And with 29 states legalizing medical use and 91 percent of the population supporting that, a national consensus may not be far off.

The eligible patients, as the program stands now, are those who have tried at least two other antiepileptic drugs that have failed to control seizures. The typical patients “on a good day, have a half-dozen seizures,” Denton said. “On a bad day, they can’t count the number of seizures they have.”

Even though he spent plenty of time trying to talk himself out of going into the cannabis industry—in what is one of the hardest states to do so—Denton explained that it is the patients that have made the significant hassle to enter the market worthwhile.

After planting their first seeds on October 31, the same day the company received its full license, it took a little over two months to get fully grown plants. After harvest, the dried plants are loaded into a state-of-the-art extraction machine to produce an oil, which is then purified. From harvest to finished product, it takes about two to two-and-a-half weeks.

Patients, too, have to go through something of a struggle to get their CBD prescriptions. In the program’s first stages, Texas doesn’t make it easy: Patients have to see a doctor board-certified in neurology or epileptology to get diagnosed, and then another doctor is required to second the first doctor’s opinion. The patient’s information gets entered into a required computer system that monitors the program before they can finally get a prescription.

It’s “kind of a lengthy, burdensome process,” Denton said. But they won’t “know whether the rules are a hindrance or a portal of getting medicine to these people” until the dispensary has been open for a while.

The other two companies in what is, for now, an exclusive club, Cansortium Texas and Surterra Texas, have yet to announce when their sales will begin, although Cansortium confirmed that it would focus on deliveries to patients, rather than a retail dispensary. Cansortium was the first to be awarded a license—on September 1—and Compassionate Cultivation followed shortly thereafter, on October 31. Surterra Texas was awarded its license on December 15.

Texas has joined a club of 29 states that have legalized medical cannabis, as well as 15 that have legalized medical CBD. Conservative states haven’t typically led the way in the marijuana movement but Denton said Texas is a sign that medical marijuana is gaining bipartisan support, particularly given that the effort was spearheaded by a Republican state representative.

“I think it’s a rare opportunity to not just witness history, to participate or even lead history,” he said. “The only way to make [medical cannabis] a reality is by proving the efficacy of it, one step at a time in Texas.”

After experiencing firsthand how much meeting epilepsy patients impacted his own view of how important medical cannabis could be, Denton is optimistic about Republicans’ approach in the coming years.

“When it becomes apparent this medicine can help their son, their mother, their father, this quickly goes from being about a political issue to improving the lives around us,” he said.