Some days are longer and more trying than others for attorney Lisa L. Pittman. One of those was May 2, when the Texas House of Representatives held its first hearing on HB 2107, which would, she says, improve and expand the state’s fledging medical marijuana initiative, known as the Compassionate Use Program (CUP).
Scheduled at 9:30 p.m., the hearing didn’t adjourn until nearly 2 a.m. as dozens of people from across the state—mothers of sick children, adults suffering from multiple sclerosis, and veterans with PTSD, among them—testified about the need for improved access to potential treatments.
“They put the hearing last, which is just further disrespect for all these patients who are in a lot of agony,” says Pittman. Petite and soft-spoken, the Houston native and Austin resident is the first civil business attorney in Texas to specialize in cannabis issues, representing investors and businesses interested in growing medical marijuana in Texas.
In that capacity, she filed some of the state’s first applications to supply cannabis for the Compassionate Use Program last March on behalf of several Texas-based companies. She also advocates for legislation like HB 2107 with the goal of making CUP, which is required by statute to go live by September, work better for growers and patients alike.
Although she got her law degree from UH in 2001, Pittman never intended to practice. But circumstances—medical bills from a major car accident, and later, a divorce that left her the sole breadwinner for her two children—intervened. After moving to Austin in 2013, she found herself burned out by the long hours and “patriarchal bullsh*t” of law-firm life.
Not a marijuana user herself (though she does love Willie Nelson), Pittman became curious about the future of medical marijuana products in Texas—so curious that last year she skipped the American Bar Association conference in favor of the cannabis-focused Women Grow Leadership Summit in Denver.
“I took note that there were only a couple attorneys at the conference,” says Pittman. “It’s a brand-new industry, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to blaze a new trail, but most lawyers don’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole, because they don’t want to jeopardize their other business.”
Soon afterward, a colleague connected Pittman with Colorado-based firm Feldmann Nagel, which counts marijuana/cannabis law as one of its specialties, and on April 20 of last year—yes, 4/20—Pittman officially became the firm’s sole attorney in Texas, immersing herself in the field of medical marijuana.
“I’m reading the testimony of mothers of children with epilepsy, how they have to leave their schools, churches, homes, towns, maybe even the state [to get treatment],” says Pittman, whose own daughter suffered from seizures in her early years. “I can really empathize with them—if this is a potential medication, and it’s being withheld from children, I’m going to get involved.”
Pittman spends a lot of time with legislators educating them about the complexities of the issue, and explaining why she believes existing law is inadequate. The Compassionate Use Act, which was passed in 2015, makes medical marijuana, typically delivered via lozenge, available only to Texans with intractable epilepsy who have not responded to other drugs.
It also limits users to low-THC oils, which Pittman says aren’t effective enough to improve quality of life for the average patient (she compares the low-THC oils to scooping out the gooey innards of aloe vera and trying to heal skin with the spiny exterior). And it requires a doctor to “prescribe” cannabis, which creates more hurdles to access because physicians cannot legally prescribe a Schedule I narcotic.
HB 2107 would expand access to Texans with additional medical conditions, including cancer, PTSD and Alzheimer’s, who have tried at least two other medications with no success. It would change the law’s language, requiring physicians to recommend, not prescribe, cannabis. And it would both allow for home growth and give doctors immunity from prosecution, two provisions that are hard sells with legislators.
Though HB 2107 and its companion bill, SB 269, were stalled out in committee as the legislative session ended, Pittman is optimistic that change is on the horizon. After the May 2 hearing, over 70 state representatives—including dozens of Republicans—signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
Considering the size of the Texas market and growing bipartisan support, Pittman says the pressure to expand access to medical marijuana will only increase as the industry matures. In the meantime, she’s continuing to monitor and advocate for cannabis issues. And no matter what happens, she won’t be going back to the typical law-firm life.
“When I was working insurance defense I would get really excited if on appeal we could move the needle one millimeter,” she says. “Here we’re not talking about moving the needle, we’re talking about creating new law—changing laws that are bad and making them better. It’s beyond-my-wildest-dreams exciting.”