Christi and Mark Zartler of Richardson, Texas, might not seem like obvious supporters of broader legalization of cannabis. Yet the family, and their daughter, Kara, 18, have become vocal and visible champions for greater rights to access medical marijuana in Texas.
Medical marijuana has helped Kara Zartler lead a life that's more typical of a teenager. In late September 2018, Kara went to her homecoming and pep rally and met members of the football team at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, where she has three more years before she graduates.
“Kids like Kara go to high school for eight years,” said her father, Mark Zartler, a software engineer who works from home.
Kara, who is non-verbal, has cerebral palsy and a severe form of autism, which includes self-injurious behavior.
“Kara started punching her face when she was 4, up to 3,000 times a day,” said Kara's mother, Christi Zartler, a pediatric nurse practitioner.
“We tried speech and occupational therapy, even sign language, to help her communicate and we gave her countless pharmaceutical drugs,” she told Marijuana.com. “Nothing worked until we started using cannabis seven years ago. The problem is that what Kara needs is not legal in Texas.”
Texas's medical marijuana program, the Compassionate Use Act, covers only one medical condition: intractable epilepsy.
“Kara has an oil, an edible, and we use a vaporizer. So, we're breaking the law right now,” Christi Zartler said.
No one seemed to bother the Zartlers for breaking the law until March 2017, when Mark posted a video to Facebook of him giving Kara a cannabis treatment.
In the video, shot in the Zartlers' living room, Mark gently placed a medical mask filled with cannabis vapor over Kara's mouth and nose as she repeatedly punched her face. Within five minutes, she calmed down.
“There's not a pharmaceutical medicine in the world that will help her calm down that fast,” Christi Zartler said.
Several weeks later, Child Protective Services (CPS) showed up at the Zartlers' suburban Dallas-area home. They said they were investigating Mark for giving his daughter an illegal drug and placed his name on a Child Abuse Central Index in Texas. Mark and his wife were still able to gain legal guardianship of Kara when she turned 18. Kara has a twin sister, Keeley, who didn't inherit the same health issues.
Their struggle to legally treat Kara with cannabis has transformed the Zartlers, both former Republican voters, into legalization activists. They said that this year's midterm elections are the most highly charged political showdown they've faced yet, in part because Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions is their congressman.
The Zartlers live in Texas's 32nd congressional district, which includes northern Dallas and the surrounding suburbs such as Richardson. Sessions, an 11-term Republican congressman first elected to Congress in 1996, has won every election for the House of Representatives since 2002, often by a landslide. This year's midterms might turn out differently.
“Sessions is a national problem,” Mark Zartler told Marijuana.com.
As chairman of the House Rules Committee, Sessions has prevented up to three dozen cannabis amendments from reaching a vote on the House floor. Sessions' opposition extends to medical marijuana.
Sessions has called cannabis advocates “merchants of addiction.”
Mark Zartler called Sessions a “blocker of federal cannabis reform.”
Sessions' Washington and Dallas offices declined to comment after several attempts by Marijuana.com
“Anything with the word 'marijuana' in it gets rejected by the committee and never sees the light of day,” Mark Zartler said. “The difference now is that here in Dallas County, we actually have a chance to unseat Sessions with Colin Allred.” A civil rights attorney and former linebacker with the Tennessee Titans from 2007 to 2010, Allred supports medical cannabis and decriminalizing marijuana possession.
According to a Sept. 27, 2018, New York Times/Siena College poll, Allred is running practically neck-and-neck with Sessions.
For the Zartlers, campaigning for Allred is a family affair.
“Colin is dynamic and he's moving Dallas County forward with a progressive program – not just about medical cannabis. He's different in every way from Sessions,” Mark Zartler said.
The Zartlers' Republican friends and colleagues haven't given their blessing to the Zartlers' outspoken support for a Democrat or for medical cannabis.
“There are a few people who tell me that I'm doing wrong by Kara, including lawmakers, but she's doing better than ever. She stopped her self-injury and has gained developmental skills and maturity,” Mark Zartler said. “It's not really a debatable issue.”
Mark Zartler noted that even Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is modifying his attitude toward cannabis.
In a televised public debate with Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez on Sept. 28, 2018, Abbott said, “One thing I don't want to see is jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana.”
Among his supporters, and now some of his colleagues, Sessions remains in a small although powerful minority.
“There's a good 80 percent or more of Texans who support medical marijuana,” Mark Zartler said. “Pete Sessions refuses to listen, so we need to vote him out. The whole country will thank us.”