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Here’s What Medical Cannabis Looks Like in Texas

March 13, 2019
Compassionate Cultivation founder and CEO Morris Denton looks over marijuana plants in the company's flowering room in Manchaca, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Nearly all forms of cannabis are illegal in Texas. And by illegal, I mean very illegal. Possession of a small amount of cannabis concentrate—what we in the legal states know as a $30 vape cartridge—is a felony in the Lone Star State.

Medical marijuana here has almost no THC. It's actually lower in THC than hemp-derived CBD.

But there is one form of cannabis that is allowed. It’s a highly specialized cannabidiol oil that contains, by law, no more than 0.5% THC and no less than 10% CBD. It’s available only to patients with intractable epilepsy, and three companies are licensed to produce and distribute it.

I recently had the chance to tour one of those companies. The home offices and grow facility of Compassionate Cultivation are tucked away in Manchaca, a little farm town on the outskirts of Austin. It’s not encased in barbed wire, but it’s not exactly advertised, either. A small vinyl sign bearing a vague sprouting-seed logo—not the typical marijuana fan leaf—stands in a lonely field of live oaks.

Outstanding in its field: The dispensaries in Texas keep a low profile. (Photo: Ben Adlin)

John Volkmann, the company’s chief marketing officer, greeted Leafly News Editor Ben Adlin and me in the front office of a light industrial warehouse facility. “Welcome to our dispensary,” he said. Ben and I looked around, confused. We saw a waiting room and a receptionist. And… that’s it, Volkmann explained. There are no products in retail display cabinets, no budtenders, no jars or chopsticks. Most patients order their medicine online and receive it via delivery, Volkmann told us. Those who visit in person receive one-on-one consults there in the waiting room in Manchaca.

Delivery Via a Prius Fleet

Texas is an enormous state. You could fit all of France and Switzerland inside its borders. How does Compassionate Cultivation deliver? “We run a fleet of Priuses,” said Volkmann. “We need to be able to deliver medicine to Laredo, El Paso, Houston,” wherever their patients reside.

And those hybrids are customized for the job. “Our vehicles are built out with GPS tracking and safes that are mounted to the frames of the vehicles,” explained Taylor Kirk, the company’s vice president of operations. “It’s a very controlled process.”

Inside the Compassionate Cultivation grow room: This month’s plant, next month’s CBD oil. (Photo: Ben Adlin)

A Very Strict Program

The state’s Compassionate Use Act, implemented in early 2016, is a very controlled program. In fact, it’s not overseen by the state health department, as most medical marijuana programs are. It’s run by the Texas Department of Public Safety—the police agency that also manages the Texas Rangers and the Texas Highway Patrol.

The strict law allows patients with intractable epilepsy—the only qualifying condition—to consult with a state-registered specialist who may recommend low-THC cannabis oil. There aren’t a lot of these physicians. In all of Travis County, which includes Austin, the state registry lists only four. (Patients can search for those registered physicians here.) The physician then enters the patient’s name into the Compassionate Use Registry of Texas (CURT), an online portal that the state’s three dispensaries can use to verify that a patient qualifies.

Smokeable flower is not allowed. All flower and leaf must be converted to cannabis oil products.

“We have a pretty constrained cannabis opportunity here,” John Volkmann acknowledged.

Breeding the house specialty: Waterloo is a low-THC, high-CBD strain unique to Compassionate Cultivation. (Photo: Ben Adlin)

More Hemp Oil Than MMJ, For Now

It’s so constrained that Leafly doesn’t technically consider Texas a legal medical marijuana state under our definition of the term.

Here’s the problem: The medicine produced by Compassionate Cultivation and its two competitors, Knox Medical and Surterra Wellness isn’t much different in potency than the mail-order CBD products proliferating across the United States. When Congress passed the farm bill late last year, it included language that offered more legal wiggle room for hemp-based CBD producers. By law, hemp is cannabis that contains less than 0.3% THC. Licensed medical cannabis in Texas contains less than 0.5% THC.

Those unlicensed CBD oils, which typically contain double-digit percentages of CBD and minute traces of THC, are commonly ordered online and shipped through the US Postal Service. Unlicensed CBD remains illegal in Texas, farm bill notwithstanding. That doesn’t mean people here don’t purchase it online, but most law enforcement agencies see proactive enforcement as a waste of tax dollars.

Related

Does the Farm Bill Legalize CBD, Too? Not Exactly

Why Spent the Money?

So why invest millions of dollars in a CBD oil startup that’s so restricted by state law? Compassionate Cultivation and its two competitors seem to be playing the long game: stay strictly compliant with state law now and be ready when legislators open the system to more patients and qualifying conditions.

Indeed, even as we ended our tour, legislators in Austin were considering a number of bills that would do exactly that.

And Volkmann pointed out something else his company was delivering to patients: safety and reliability. Unlicensed hemp-based CBD oil is completely unregulated. Past studies have found that some products deliver far less CBD than they promise. Other products may contain contaminants such as mold or heavy metals, because no product testing is required.

Related

Tests of CBD oils reveal three surprise chemicals, one big problem

At Compassionate Cultivation, the company grows its own low-THC strains of cannabis onsite. It’s also in the process of breeding new strains, such as the high-CBD cultivar called Waterloo. Experienced technicians extract cannabinoids and terpenes. A state-of-the-art lab tests the products to make sure they’re delivering what patients expect. It’s a multimillion-dollar operation just waiting for its patient base to expand.

“We can’t go beyond what the current law allows,” Volkmann said. “But when the law changes and allows more qualifying conditions, we’ll be ready.”

Hear more from John Volkmann and others at Compassionate Cultivation in a bonus episode of The Roll-Up podcast, Cannabis in Texas.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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  • Christian Blanchard

    I am so disappointed and frankly, disgusted by my home state when it comes to legalization. Our compassionate use act is anything but and Greg Abbot’s big pharma kick backs are clearly more important than helping disabled people. He is one of us so you’d think he’d be sympathetic. Oh but no, he’d rather line the pockets of Oklahoma, Arkansas and, Louisiana and make suffering people in Texas into criminals. He must have a hand in our for profit prison system too. I have intractable seizures and cannabis is the only thing that helps. REAL cannabis, not 0.5% CBD. For most adults in my situation, CBD is not enough. I’m not a criminal or a drug addict, I was a nurse before I got sick. I smoked weed maybe three times in my life before my seizures started all in high school. I cannot tolerate seizure meds or opiates so for me, cannabis is literally a life saver. My pain is very severe as well. Without cannabis, I definitely would have committed suicide by now. But, Greg Abbot doesn’t care. He not only wants to block my access to this plant but, also hemp based CBD with no THC in it! While other states are fully legalizing cannabis, we’re going backwards! Texas is supposed to be a state where it’s inhabitants can enjoy a lot of freedom. Hell, we can have tigers in our backyards but, not a plant that grows wild here already. Think about how ridiculous that is. We have drive through liquor stores but, no weed. Come on Texas, time to catch up to the rest of the country. Greg Abbot needs to go and time to elect a governor that puts Texas first.

    • Willem DaFuckedUp

      It’s time to just vote these Republican tyrants out of office. They are so clueless and stuck in their own bubble of god-fearing reality.

  • Heather

    Im hoping Texas legalizes the adult use of recreational marijuana someday but not holding my breath. The liquor stores are everywhere and drunks are killing people daily including themselves. It makes no sense. I can only assume it’s ignorance preventing legalization because i havnt heard of one fatality involving the use marijuana alone.

  • TweetyBird

    Yet another reason to never, ever, set foot in Texas.

  • Mitchell Seymour

    Texas and Indiana both when it comes to this stuff proove time and again that when old white people are in charge of things; nothing gets done and no one is safe. they care about their old money and their old white friends and its sad.