In Marble Falls, Texas, a town of 7,000 about an hour west of Austin, a drug deal of sorts is going down. Underneath cover of a gray, foggy day, local buyers—average age: 80-plus—prepare their home for the meeting. Laid out on dining table for guests is coffee, tea, and Girl Scout Cookies while FOX News blares in the background. Republican regalia, like a 2016 Trump-Pence sticker on the laundry door and a picture of one resident’s father arm-in-arm with President Dwight Eisenhower, adorn the walls. Show horses ninny in the fields outside.
Inside, local ringleader Patricia is introducing a friend to Chad Moore, her Austin plug. Pat has arranged a dozen or so similar meetings with other friends and so everyone present, except the newcomer, understands how these deals proceed. Chad will sit and listen to whatever pains and ails Patricia’s friends before suggesting some illegal goods to help alleviate all that. No pamphlet or doctor around can match the type of resource Chad provides, though this prototypically Texan household is the only location locals can find him. (I have changed Chad’s and his wife’s names at their request because they are admitting to criminal acts.)
But first, in Texas fashion, pleasantries must be exchanged. Pat’s husband, Bill, remarks the last time he saw this curious new buyer, they were both at “the damn cancer place” receiving life-saving treatments. “So it’s good to see you here!” he says, and the room fills with nervous laughter.
With his partner and wife Vicki, Chad supplies medical marijuana to about 200 patients around Austin through their homemade tinctures, edibles, bath salts, and more. “We’re no medical experts,” Vicki and Chad admit, they just happen to have more information about cannabis than most anyone else their patients meet. Medical marijuana patients themselves, they’ve also assumed roles as political advocates, petitioning state legislators to expand Texas’s severely restrictive cannabis regime.
Acquiring cannabis flower in Austin isn’t difficult by any means, but the Moores aren’t just dealers, they also offer guidance to people who might be unfamiliar with the drug. For example, those who refuse to smoke marijuana but seek quick relief need to use products like under-the-tongue sprays and oil tinctures or transdermal patches (which resemble a nicotine patch) as those “get in there in about 15 to 20 minutes,” Chad says. They may not be thinking about THC-CBD ratios, or know that a 1:1 ratio was found in a 2004 study to reduces muscle spasticity and pain in multiple sclerosis patients with “no significant adverse effects on cognition or mood.”
Even Chad, a rah-rah medical marijuana believer, admits there’s just “not a lot of hard clinical research about [cannabis]. So I have books that look at some of the clinical research and cite some of the studies and then I just talk about the likelihood that it might help with this.” Thanks in part to draconian restrictions on cannabis research in the US, there are a lot of open questions about medical marijuana, though there’s some evidence THC and CBD could help treat everything from chronic pain to anxiety to epilepsy in children. In the absence of authoritative information from doctors, patients end up latching on to whatever advice they happen across.
“You have to experiment on yourself,” one cancer patient who preferred anonymity confided. Before meeting Vicki and Chad, a revulsion to smoking led this patient to sprinkle raw cannabis flower in her yogurt, guacamole, and salads, hoping some cannabinoids were entering her system. Now she takes a daily dose of 1:1 THC-CBD cannabis oil every morning, a more optimal treatment, according to Chad, because the ratio limits marijuana’s psychoactive effects and edible candies include sugar, which can drive the growth of cancer cells. (Sugar does not actually cause cancer cells to grow any faster, but that is a common myth, according to the Mayo Clinic.)
Texas doctors neither condone or condemn patients using medical cannabis, but legally can’t offer real guidance about doses or delivery methods, creating a void that people like Chad and Vicki, who don’t have professional medical training or expertise, have wound up filling.
Patricia told me that one Austin Cancer Center doctor privately admitted to her that “60 percent of her cancer patients” use medical cannabis. “When you tell her [you’re using it,] she says, ‘Good.’ But she won’t tell you to do it. She can’t.” If those patients were caught with low-level marijuana possession, they could face prison time, fines up to $2,000, and driver’s license revocation. When asked if Texans had to choose between breaking the law or getting treatment, Patricia responded affirmatively: “Yep, that’s the truth.” If not for the illegality involved, “all my friends would do it,” she says.
In 2015, Texas passed the Compassionate Use Act, which allows low-THC cannabis oil to be used for patients with intractable epilepsy. But it’s the strictest so-called medical marijuana program in the country and is by many accounts a failure.
In December, the San Antonio Express-News reported that fewer than 600 out of a possible 150,000 epilepsy patients in the state have received the medicine. Part of the issue is the bill’s wording, which specifies that doctors must “prescribe” marijuana, instead of “recommending” it, as doctors do in other states. “It's not technically a prescription because you can't prescribe a Schedule I drug,” says Heather Fazio, the director of Texas for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “So it puts doctors in jeopardy in order to participate.” Only around 45 doctors, mostly found in big cities like Dallas or Houston, have registered to prescribe the medicine.
Without any formal system or regulations, Chad and Vicki represent an oasis for patients in a wasteland of desperation, misinformation, and suffering. Glamour or money isn’t what the couple seeks—“This is all small-time bullshit,” Chad confesses—and they’d prefer running this underground marijuana dispensary of theirs on the books. Encouraged by the Compassionate Use Act, legislation the couple never thought would happen, they started participating in political advocacy to decriminalize and expand medical marijuana during the 2017 legislative session, though those efforts fell short. This year, they’re all in. If cannabis laws don’t change, Chad and Vicki vow that they’ll relocate elsewhere.
Only two factors present them pause: a) deep roots to the state (Chad’s a seventh-generation Texan) and b) knowing no one else could provide medicine to all these people in need.
“The most important thing is that people get access to it,” Vicki admits. “I wouldn't care if all of this went away, if everybody could get what they needed.”
Hidden inside the couple’s house is a small room best described as a long list of felonies—chocolates, tinctures, bath salts, transdermal patches, suppositories (a new doctor-approved trend), tea blends, and joints. If it weren’t for the patients, Vicki wouldn’t keep any of it lying around.
She can’t help but sympathize because she is a patient too. So is Chad. At age 23 he suffered his first attack of multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the body’s immune system fights the brain and spinal cord. It can result in muscle spasms, mood swings, and temporary paralysis. His condition is relapsing-remitting, coming and going throughout his life, but each breakdown leaves his body weaker than it was before. Chad, who also overcame a battle with alcoholism and has been sober since 2005, needs drops of his homemade tincture to get out of bed in the mornings without debilitating pain.
In 2011, while serving as the president of a statewide insurance company, Vicki was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Vicki smoked cannabis to relieve nauseous side effects of chemotherapy, but she wouldn’t tell her children from her previous marriage or coworkers about it. The potential consequences weren’t worth it.
That attitude represents part of their marriage’s “essential conflict,” Chad says. Vicki admits she doesn’t “like running an underground business.” Since she was a kid, Vicki’s been someone who doesn’t give anyone a reason to reprimand her. “I have always made it my style to follow the rules,” she says.
But Chad grew up around cannabis his whole life. When he was five, his mom told him she smoked cannabis and not to tell his teachers at school, or else mommy could get in trouble. At age 13, his mom passed him a joint because she had “some killer shit” she wanted to share, breaking their initial agreement of Chad not smoking marijuana until he was closer to 18.
From then forth, Chad says “it took a space in my consciousness.” In the same year he had his first hit, Chad joined NORML, the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws. As a teenager, he devoured the stack of literature the organization sent, suddenly inspired to be a cannabis crusader, though at the time he doubted claims cannabis was some medical “miracle plant.” He doesn’t question the idea anymore.
“I felt so strongly that we needed to do something, you know, we needed to fight,” he says.
Chad and Vicki say they stumbled into all this, as much as someone can stumble into running an illegal marijuana dispensary deep in the heart of Texas. When Vicki’s lymphoma went into clinical remission, she left her insurance job and the couple traveled around the world. A stop in Colorado, where cannabis had recently become recreationally legal, inspired the couple to try and open a bud-and-breakfast in the state. They’d raised funds, picked out bedsheets, and prepared business strategies.
But the deal fell through at the last minute, so the couple returned to Austin, where Chad began experimenting with making cannabis topicals to alleviate his MS. It worked and soon he made caramels and chocolate bars and infused oils. They began hosting “elevation parties,” which resembled Tupperware parties: They’d come to someone’s home, display their goods, sell products, and offer a crash course in cannabis. Demand took off, so they conceived of pop-up shops at local venues, eventually hiring security and cashiers while they entertained guests.
It was a fun side hustle, something to do while they decided their next steps in life. But then people asked Chad and Vicki if they had anything to help with back pain or their mom’s colon cancer. They dug into research and established cannabis literature, offering the best advice they could. Word spread even faster than it did before. More and more those who couldn’t find solutions within Western medicine requested their services. Millennials with anxiety, veterans with PTSD, chronic pain-suffering elderly, a former Division I football coach with dementia. They weren’t always successful and their products weren’t cure-alls, but Chad and Vicki provided relief to those who previously had none.
“I almost feel like I have patients, but I'm not a doctor,” Chad says. “I’m giving somebody else some medical advice and trying to help them. And I feel very responsible for whether they're helped or not.”
If Chad is the hippie tinkerer of the pair, Vicki is the brainy businesswoman behind the operation. Whenever she walks through the Capitol during cannabis activist rallies, she carries a binder of dossiers on every state legislator, full of their personal information and voting records. She knows exactly where they stand on the issues and what talking points might hit a soft spot for a particular lawmaker. If Fox News plays on the office TV upon entering, she knows her work is cut out for her. Like any political advocate, Vicki doesn’t bat a thousand—like the time an aide refused to acknowledge her or even stop watching an episode of The Office on his iPhone—but she’s always prepared. To have a chance at expanding medical marijuana in Texas, she has to be.
Political game plans deployed by cannabis advocates in other states, like arguments about how marijuana programs could create tax revenue, don’t work in Texas. According to the Texas Tribune, legislators are expected to have $119.1 billion in state funds available to play with for the upcoming 2020-21 budget, an 8.1 percent increase from the previous budget. The state also has a rainy-day savings of $15 billion should the economy dip. The idea of extra cash from marijuana taxes just doesn’t catch anyone’s attention; they’re already swimming in green. “Also keep in mind that ‘taxes’ and ‘regulation’ are bad words in Texas,” adds Fazio.
Advocates can’t circumvent legislators either, as Oklahomans did last year to create a state medical marijuana program, because Texans cannot petition ballot initiatives—a political mechanism cannabis campaigners have used in other states to take advantage of marijuana’s popularity. (A 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll indicated only 16 percent of voters believe marijuana possession under any circumstance should remain illegal.) Arguing that every state surrounding Texas has a legitimate medical cannabis program falls upon deaf ears as well.
Activists must also overcome the influential Sheriffs Association of Texas. The organization has adamantly decried most, if not all, legislation that would expand medical cannabis in the state. Fazio believes everyone is “just clinging to that authority that they have now under the current policies.”
According to Jackson County Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback, a member of the association’s legislative committee and vocal critic of cannabis reform, any loosening of current laws would inevitably lead to full-blown recreational marijuana. In his eyes, cannabis remains a “gateway drug” with significant social costs. “The ultimate objective is to legalize marijuana in the state period, whether it be through medical use or whether it be just through direct recreational use,” says Louderback. “That's clearly what a contingent of people in the state want to do.”
“The majority of law enforcement in the state probably will go along with certain things as far as decriminalization, other things they just won't,” he adds. “So whether our lawmakers will become engaged in that—and they haven't in the past—you've got to determine whether or not it's right for Texas now to go down that pathway.”
A legitimate possibility, one that Vicki and Chad fear might come true, is Texas will merely reduce the penalties for possession—an idea that has the public support of Governor Greg Abbott, one of the state’s staunchest conservatives—and increase the current THC cap of the Compassionate Use Act. That would be a victory, but a small one; the Texas Legislature only meets once every two years, so advocates are hoping for more sweeping reform this session.
Two years ago, lawmakers stalled on scheduling cannabis-related bills early on. Activists struggled to push bills through the legislative process, though a decriminalization measure progressed far enough for a vote on the last day of the session. But the session ended before the bill made it to the floor to force a vote. “We were beat by the clock,” Fazio says.
If history repeats itself in Texas, Vicki and Chad say they’ll leave and launch a similar operation—or maybe collaborate with another brand, or work at another dispensary, they’re not sure yet—in a legal state. They love Texas and they love their work, but they can’t afford the risks anymore. “You can help a lot of people, but you have to be quiet about it?” Vicki says. “My sister has no idea what I do. If she did, she would never let me see my niece. She would let me have nothing to do with her.”
“There needs to be really serious expansion,” Chad adds. “We're doing a lot of good for people and we deserve to be able to spread the word."