Still illegal: Texas law on CBD oil lands grandmother in jail after DFW airport search

At first it seemed like a random bag check at the customs checkpoint at DFW Airport, Lena Bartula said.

Bartula, a 72-year-old woman who grew up in Fort Worth, was on her way to Portland, Oregon, from Mexico to visit her granddaughter.

“The agent kept digging as if he was sure he was going to find something,” Bartula said.

He did and that something he found cost Bartula two nights in jail and a felony arrest.

Test results at the airport revealed it was CBD oil, legal in some concentrations after the passage of the federal 2019 Farm Bill, still illegal in Texas in most cases, and legal in about half of U.S. states.

“To be honest, I did not even think about the possibility of my CBD being illegal or being challenged,” Bartula said. “It is such an integral part of my wellness that it got thrown into my bag along with Vitamin C and oregano oil. Had I thought about it, I would have remembered that I could buy it in Portland.”

CBD oil comes from the hemp plant, which is related to the marijuana plant. The oil has been shown to have a positive effect on some patients suffering from epilepsy, and there are indications that it has positive effects for some suffering from insomnia, social anxiety disorder, and Parkinson’s disease, and it may help some people quit smoking, according to Medline Plus, a health information website run by the federal government.

But unless the law changes, it is illegal in Texas for most people.

Bartula was charged with possession of a controlled substance, which if she had been convicted could have meant a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. A Tarrant County grand jury declined to pursue her case and the charge was dismissed, according to court documents.

But the ruling was issued more than two months after her Sept. 16 arrest.

Lena Bartula holds a bottle of CBD oil the same size as the one she had when she was arrested.

“There was another woman in my cell who had been arrested two hours earlier for having some vape samples,” Bartula said. “During the night sometime, another woman was brought in to a different cell from ours. She was arrested for carrying Stevia in plant form, which she was told the dogs had sniffed and therefore it must be marijuana.”


The next day the three women were shackled in handcuffs and leg irons and taken to the Tarrant County Jail, where they were booked, changed into prison garb, fingerprinted, given a tuberculosis vaccine shot, whether they wanted it or not, and moved from one freezing cell to another, Bartula said.

Bartula said she was arrested on a Saturday and by Monday she still had not eaten, and she wasn’t going to.

“The sandwiches looked disgusting,” Bartula said. “For one thing, I’m gluten sensitive, but for another, my appetite had long since disappeared. Many other women in my cell were ready to eat them, and some of the cells we were moved to had stacks of those sandwiches all around and on back of the toilets.

“There are no waste baskets in the cells. Roaches were crawling on the sandwiches, but some of my cellmates were actually hungry enough to eat them.

“Those cellmates consisted of heroin addicts, DWI’s, protestors who had been to a rally to end police brutality, and some who were arrested for fleeing bail. The three of us brought in together from DFW were the only jail virgins there.“

Just after midnight, her bail had been paid and she was free to go — nowhere, Bartula said.

“There I was, standing in a strange city, in the middle of the night, had nowhere to go, no one to call,” Bartula said. “Because it’s a county jail, they must imagine that we all call someone. The heroin addict who had by now become my friend and guardian walked with me over to the 7-11. She called her mom. I called a taxi. “

Bartula could not find her identification card and the hotels would not let her have a room without one, she said. After two hours, Bartula realized that she had put her identification inside the Tarrant County Jail Inmate Handbook that had been given to her instead of in her billfold with her credit cards, she said. Bartula said she never opened the handbook because that would have brought her too close to becoming an inmate.

Lena Bartul_fitted.jpeg
Lena Bartula spent two nights in Tarrant County jail and two months worrying whether an arrest for a tiny bottle of CBD oil might land her in prison for years.

Bartula met her bail bondsman later that morning and finally got a flight to Portland.

Friends found an attorney, Brandon Barnett, to take her case.

Barnett said a fairly good prosecutor was assigned to the case. Bartula had more than 60 people willing to be character witnesses and that helped. Some of those friends set up a GoFundMe page to gather donations to offset her legal expenses, Barnett said.

“She had no idea that what she was doing was illegal,” Barnett said. “She was using this product for her health.”

According to the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office, only a small percentage of Texans who suffer from a specific form of intractable epilepsy can legally possess CBD products. A bill that will expand the number of conditions that can be legally treated in Texas by CBD products if signed into law is awaiting final approval by the House and Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

David Sloane, another Fort Worth attorney who handles marijuana and CBD oil cases, said he sees about a client a week fighting the same or similar charges. Sloane is a spokesman for DFW NORML, a marijuana reform advocacy organization.

People miss their flights, lose their luggage and belongings, and have to confront serious legal issues that must be addressed in Texas, Sloane said.

“It’s a shame that people are being snatched out of the air and being subjected to the laws in this state,” Sloane said. “I think this whole question has become a royal pain for prosecutors all over Texas.”

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Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.