Today’s guest speaker, Jennifer Cantu, apologizes to the class as she projects her slideshow onto the screen at the front of the conference room. “I’m sorry my slides aren’t up to date anymore,” she tells the group assembled this Saturday morning for a class from the Houston Academy of Cannabis Science. “I finished these last night, and then a new cannabis bill moved through the House at 11:52 p.m., and suddenly my slides weren’t accurate. Things are changing fast.”
She promises to send out an updated slideshow before launching into her lecture. Twenty students, ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties, scribble down notes on the history of the cannabis plant, its medical uses, and the regulations that govern how it’s produced and distributed in Texas and elsewhere. Nearby, Leavery Davidson, class instructor and academy CEO, makes a note to remind Cantu to send out that slide.
In the past few decades, more than 30 states have legalized cannabis in some form. Even in good old Texas, lawmakers have been trying to pass various pieces of marijuana-related legislation for years. But previous efforts have led to just one success—the Texas Compassionate Use Act, passed in 2015, which allows patients with intractable epilepsy to be prescribed medical-grade, low-THC cannabidiol, or CBD oil, which has been proven to help with seizures.
The product, taken orally or applied topically, is made from marijuana or hemp buds. It’s also purported to relieve everything from pain to anxiety to inflammation—more studies need to be conducted to prove this definitively—but without the high produced by THC. Texas’s industry currently consists of three licensed CBD oil dispensaries where cannabis is grown, turned into oil, and distributed, plus numerous over-the-counter oil suppliers, typically head shops, whose offerings of a weaker form of the drug vary wildly in quality and exist in a legally gray area.
Davidson believes that, with the 86th Biennial Legislative Session underway, things are about to open up, at a minimum when it comes to access to prescription-strength CBD oil. That’s why she’s launched her five-week class, the first of its kind in Texas. Her students, too, believe. Why else would they have plunked down $420, plus tax, to take it, in hopes of getting in on the action?
“Something is going to get through to change the law here,” Davidson tells her students, beaming at them with the confidence of an oracle. “This is going to happen, and we are in the right place at the right time. We’re going to be on the ground floor of this, and that’s amazing. So strap in and get ready.”
But what’s going to happen, exactly? It’s hard to know. As of this writing, 21 cannabis-related bills have been filed this session, almost all focused on two main issues: reducing criminal penalties for possession of marijuana, and increasing access to medical marijuana, mainly in the form of CBD oil. Only one joint resolution proposes legalizing all forms of marijuana across the board, and it’s hard not to wonder whether its authors were high. This is Texas, after all.
“I think it’s a little bit early to look for any major changes in Texas,” Katharine Neill Harris, a drug policy expert at Rice’s Baker Institute, tells Houstonia. “The bills that really have a chance of being approved are the efforts to decriminalize marijuana, because last year both the Republican Party of Texas and the Governor endorsed it essentially, and that sent a big message.”
As for medical marijuana, Harris explains, “the conservatives in the state still aren’t convinced, and Abbott isn’t convinced. They think any medical program has to be a Trojan horse for recreational legalization. Even though that’s not true, that’s the political climate around the issue.” When we ask Harris about legalizing pot for recreational use, she just laughs.
For her part, Davidson—a former HISD teacher and a professor who holds a PhD in education—says she’s not expecting everything to change overnight. But she’s holding out hope that prescription-strength CBD oil will become more broadly available, and she believes that when that happens, the industry is really going to take off.
Growing up in Sunnyside, the closest Davidson ever got to marijuana was when her exasperated mother flushed her teenage brother’s weed down the toilet. “It didn’t seem to do anything bad to my brothers,” she recalls, “but I was never supposed to go anywhere near that stuff.”
Then, a few years ago, after her sciatica flared up again, Davidson’s daughters urged her to try CBD oil instead of loading up on ibuprofen. When the throbbing in her lower back wouldn’t subside, she gave in, opened the little glass bottle her girls had procured, and squirted the oil under her tongue. It worked. “I’ve had this issue for more than 20 years, and I was so tired of being in pain, and when I tried this stuff it was amazing,” she tells us. “I decided, this is going to be a game changer. And I wanted to be involved before the boom took off.”
Some friends have looked askance at Davidson’s new endeavor. “There’s a stigma that comes with anything related to cannabis,” she says. “So many people have come up to me and said, ‘Girl, are you pushing marijuana?’ I keep telling them, ‘No, I’m pushing education about cannabis, and the possibilities of CBD oil. I’m pushing opportunity.’ We’re about to have a real industry for cannabis in this state.”