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The birth of Iowa’s medical marijuana program in the Iowa Legislature was remarkable and dramatic, and the issue has ever since remained one of much legislative intrigue.

That continues this year as lawmakers face a critical deadline that, if not changed, will end the program.

Iowa’s medical marijuana program was approved in the waning days of 2014's legislative session. Advocates had pressed lawmakers all session to create the program, seemingly to no avail. But just when the issue appeared to be dead, suddenly, a bill was introduced, debated, approved, and sent to the governor, who signed it into law.

It was quite the dramatic entrance for a program that allows Iowa residents to, with a physician’s prescription, possess cannabidiol, an oil byproduct of the marijuana plant that has medicinal qualities, to treat themselves or their children who suffer from epileptic seizures.

The program’s creation was welcomed and celebrated by advocates. But it also is narrow and restrictive; the program does not allow cannabidiol to be grown or sold in Iowa, and many other states that have a program do not sell outside their borders, which can make it difficult for Iowans to obtain the product.

And the program only allows for cannabidiol to be used to treat epileptic seizures. Advocates say more forms of medical cannabis should be legalized, and more ailments --- cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example --- should be eligible for treatment.

Advocates’ push to expand the state program kept the issue in lawmakers’ focus and the news. Dozens, maybe hundreds of people came to the Iowa Capitol in 2015 and 2016 to plead with lawmakers and tell their tales of pain, suffering --- and for some who have used cannabidiol, remarkable success.

Last year, an effort was made to expand the program. But the original bill, which would have permitted the growth and sale of medical cannabis, was stripped to its bare bones almost immediately after introduction. The amended version only attempted to create a partnership with one or more of the 28 states that have expansive medical cannabis laws.

The final version of the bill was deemed insufficient by advocates, and it was voted down by the Iowa House.

With the program set to expire July 1, lawmakers this session have been attempting to craft legislation that would extend --- and in some cases --- expand it. Already there have been ups and downs.

A bill introduced in the Iowa House achieved many of advocates’ goals: It would have extended the program, permitted the growth and sale of medical cannabis, and created a process by which more ailments could be added.

The bill appeared to have at least some measure of support when it was introduced and approved by a three-member subcommittee. More often than not, legislators do not hold subcommittee hearings unless they are confident the bill has at least enough support to pass the next step, the full committee.

There appeared to be optimism around that House bill when all three members of the subcommittee --- two Republicans and one Democrat --- approved it.

However, the very next day, the bill died when it was revealed there was not sufficient support from the full committee.

Back to the drawing board.

Legislators appear to be intent on, at the very least, extending the existing program. I have not yet heard any concern that nothing will get done and the program will expire. Whether any measure of expansion will occur remains in doubt.

The House has started over with a bill that extends the program and provides that if the federal government approves medical cannabis for medicinal use, so too shall the state.

The Senate has drafted an expansion bill that is much more like the original House bill, in that it permits the growth and sale of medical cannabis and expands the ailments covered.

It has been a long journey for medical cannabis advocates, with triumph and heartbreak along the way. Already this session, there have been twists and turns in the road and more are likely to come before legislators adjourn for the year.

The question that remains is, once they do, what kind of medical cannabis program will be in place.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and state government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net.

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