Mark and Christy Zartlers’ 18-year-old daughter, Kara, has cerebral palsy and a severe form of autism that includes Self-Injurious Behavior (SIB). When Kara is agitated, she punches herself in the head; on multiple occasions, she’s broken bones in her face. She’s nonverbal, which makes it difficult for the Zartlers to understand what’s inciting her self-injurious behavior (professionals say there can be a wide range of instigating factors) and intervene.
The family has tried dozens of medications prescribed by Kara’s doctors, as well as occupational and behavioral therapies. There’s only one substance that stops Kara’s self-injury within a matter of minutes: cannabis.
But in Texas, it’s not so simple. Zartler happens to live in the district represented by Pete Sessions (no relation to attorney general Jeff), who is the Chairman of the House Rules Committee, which has federal marijuana laws under its wings. Sessions is on a mission to reduce access to medical marijuana.
He’s also running for re-election this year against Colin Allred, a pro- medical marijuana candidate who has a real chance at winning the district.
It’s an election that could change Kara’s life.
Texas technically does have medical cannabis legislation, but it’s among the most restrictive in the country. Intractable epilepsy is the only qualifying condition, and the only form of cannabis those patients are permitted is high CBD, low THC. (Because Kara’s self-injury is a behavioral issue as opposed to neurological, it’s THC, not CBD, that stabilizes her mood.)
In 2017, Kara Zartler’s father, Mark, posted a viral video to Facebook of Kara receiving a cannabis treatment. By law, the Zartlers can’t legally treat Kara with cannabis in Texas—but they wanted to show other families with self-injuring autistic children how much it helped her. They also wanted to catch the attention of lawmakers like Sessions in a position to create and pass comprehensive medical marijuana legislation.
Less than a month after posting the video, the Zartlers found child protective services at their door, alleging that Mark giving Kara cannabis treatments amounted to physical child abuse. The court found “reason to believe” Mark had physically abused Kara; he’s now on the state’s “Child Abuse Index.” Kara was not removed from the Zartlers’ care and both parents were able to retain guardianship of her when she turned 18 this year.
Desperate to treat their daughter legally, the Zartlers became advocates for medical marijuana legislation—which means they’ve become inadvertent foes of Pete Sessions.
Sessions has no control over state-specific laws on cannabis. But Sessions has done everything in his power to block or reverse federal amendments protecting legal marijuana at the state level. In June, Sessions blocked four amendments, three of which were designed to protect veterans who legally obtain and use cannabis. The first, Veterans Equal Access, would have allowed VA doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans in legal states. Another would have provided protections to veterans working for the VA who consume marijuana legally under state statute from losing their job as a result of a “positive, suspicion-less drug test.” The third would have prevented veterans from losing their VA benefits for legally using medical cannabis. Thanks to Pete Sessions, the House of Representatives hasn’t voted on any cannabis amendments since 2016.
In January of 2018, Zartler wrote to Rep. Sessions asking him to to co-sponsor the STATES (Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States) Act, which would recognize the legalization of cannabis-legal states and was introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. Sessions stomped on it.
“It’s not a hard ask,” Zartler said, frustrated. “States Rights. The 10th amendment. He declined. Meanwhile, he killed another veteran-related bill.”
Despite the overwhelming, bipartisan public support for medical marijuana legislation in Texas (a UT/Texas Tribune poll in 2017 showed 83 percent of Texans supporting medical marijuana reform), Sessions has remained steadfast in his opposition to and obstruction of cannabis legislation. In his public statements on the issue, Sessions repeats false claims, like one at an opioid epidemic conference where he says marijuana is “300 times more powerful” today than when he was in high school in 1973 (for this to be true, the cannabis plant would have to contain more than 100 percent THC, a physical impossibility).
At the same conference, Sessions echoed arguments made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions of marijuana as a gateway to opioid use. But scientific research shows the opposite: The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances”; the American Society for Addiction Medicine admits that opioid overdose death rates decrease in states with medical marijuana.
Although Zartler and his wife Christy have made numerous appointments to meet with Sessions (he told The Daily Beast that Sessions cancelled each at the last minute), Zartler knows other advocates who have met with the Congressman. “All these amendments, over the years, they had petitioners just like us,” he said. “Advocates have been visiting [Sessions] for years. This isn’t an education problem. It’s a willingness problem. It’s a Pete Sessions problem.”
Allred is the kind of candidate that’s shaping up to define post-2016 elections. The former NFL linebacker and civil rights attorney is a first-time politician, a person of color, and, at 35-years-old, younger than most of his would-be colleagues in Congress. His candidacy can also be seen as an important course-correction on the part of the DCCC—they didn’t run anyone against Pete Sessions in 2016. Hillary Clinton went on to carry the district, winning over 60 percent of the vote.
Although Allred hasn’t made marijuana a central tenet of his platform, he’s been vocal about his support of medical marijuana, especially for veterans. Allred told The Daily Beast he though Sessions’ attempts to block legislation like the Veterans Equal Access amendment “tragic”: “His outdated views on the war on drugs are frozen in the 1980s. There are veterans who are suffering from PTSD and other combat injuries and could benefit from medical marijuana right now. They want it, their doctors want to prescribe it, and Congressman Sessions is standing in the way.”
Allred’s support for medical cannabis—and his being a viable opponent against Pete Sessions—has garnered him the support of the Marijuana Leadership Campaign, the pro-cannabis super PAC. Led by Rob Kampia, a co-founder and former director of the Marijuana Policy Project, MLC is currently focused on two things: enacting change in the Texas state legislature, and defeating Pete Sessions in November.
Kampia thinks Allred has a fighting chance at enacting change in Texas on medical marijuana. “If he does all the things a Democratic candidate is supposed to do, if he gets the Democratic primary voters out to vote, if he gets the racial minorities, young voters—the groups that lean left but don’t always get to the polls—to show up, then we have a super, super close race,” he said.
Allred isn’t worried that supporting medical cannabis legislation will hurt his chances in the traditionally conservative state. “Texans are bighearted,” he says. “We want to help our neighbors who are suffering. Parents shouldn’t have to break the law to get their child the medical care they need to be safe and healthy.”
That’s music to Mark Zartler’s ears, though he knows the race will be close and the outcome is far from guaranteed.
But Zartler isn’t relaxing just yet. “I fear my government,” he said. “Kara’s medicine is an ongoing felony. I fear CPS coming back. My twin daughters [Kara and Keeley] are 18. Adult Protective Services could come for Kara. Keeley is pregnant. We’re going to have an infant living with us. I am only voting for candidates who vocally support medical marijuana. It’s a big issue in our lives.”