It’s not an identity residents of the area are rushing to embrace. Town officials are quick to point out that the site of the greenhouses and the future dispensary is technically outside of city limits. And Kristopher Emola, the cultivation manager for Knox Medical, has already learned not to volunteer that he grows pot when talking to people in Schulenburg. “It’s one of those things that has been so stigmatized for so long,” Emola says, “that it’s natural to question it initially.” But if small towns like Schulenburg can get past the stigma, they may just be the perfect entry points for a booming marijuana business in a largely conservative state. “If it helps people and it doesn’t hurt anything,” asks Fayette County Judge Ed Janecka, “why not do it?”
The law authorized the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to create a registry of prescribing doctors. It also required the DPS to issue licenses by September 2017 to at least three dispensaries to sell low-THC cannabis (containing 0.5 percent or less THC) that is at least 10 percent cannabidiol. Sales must be aimed specifically at the 150,000 patients in Texas, mostly children, who suffer from intractable epilepsy. The drug drastically reduces the number of seizures many patients with this condition suffer with almost no side effects, says Andrew Lehrman, a neurologist who has been prescribing the drug to his own epilepsy patients in Florida since it was legalized there four years ago.
Opening the dispensary in Schulenburg could be a boon for the town, says Dietrich Vollrath, a University of Houston economics professor. Medical marijuana is generally a low-risk business, and the town did not have to put up money or offer incentives to get Knox to base its Texas operations there. So, if it works, great; if it doesn’t, there’s no big loss of investment or effort for Schulenburg. “For a small town that may not have many other opportunities for growth, this may be the right move,” Vollrath says. “Once you’re the first, the natural fit would be to expand the business from there. There’s no reason it has to be Schulenburg versus anywhere else in Texas, but if it becomes the marijuana capital of Texas, why not?”
But with the market for marijuana expected to grow three- or fourfold in the next seven years, many believe this is really just the beginning. Despite Governor Greg Abbott and other state politicians’ insistence that the Texas Compassionate Use Act is not the first step toward broader legalization, it’s likely going to be pretty tempting for legislators to expand the laws once legal CBD revenues start coming into the state. “On the medical side, it’s just a matter of time,” says Franklin Snyder, a Texas A&M University law professor who taught one of the first marijuana law classes in the country. “The evidence is accumulating about the benefits, and the drug is so much less dangerous than the alternatives. We have a nationwide opioid epidemic right now, and the fact that this could be a way to cut back on prescribing those drugs is going to propel this further.”
Still, Knox Medical, when contacted after the rescission, said it was proceeding with its plans under the assumption that the policy shift wouldn’t change much in Texas. Snyder doesn’t think the company is being overly optimistic: He expects the DOJ’s new position to have a negligible bearing on a state where prosecutors have demonstrated little interest in cracking down on CBD. (He says it might be a different story for “states with recreational-use and broad medical-marijuana programs like California’s, where you can buy doobies to deal with your headaches.”)
As federal policy gets hashed out, the folksy Schulenburg location, the benefits to sick children, and the suit-wearing Knox executives could all have a powerful effect on public opinion. “They made a savvy choice putting the dispensary there,” Snyder says. “There’s something about Schulenburg that sounds very ordinary and Texas-like, reassuring in a way that, say, downtown Austin does not.”