Legalizing Marijuana

Plants used to grow medical marijuana are displayed at a medical marijuana cooperative in Seattle on Oct. 16. 

DES MOINES | Limited use of medical marijuana is legal in Iowa thanks to a law enacted earlier this year. Medical marijuana advocates are not satisfied, however, and continue to press for expansion of that law and other legal changes.

With the 2015 session of the Iowa Legislature looming, advocates continue to push for measures that would loosen the restrictions on the use of marijuana or its derivatives in medical treatments. One movement calls for expansion of the new law, and another calls for a change in marijuana’s legal classification.

Such changes would require action at the state Capitol, where lawmakers return to action in a couple of months under the same split-control leadership as the past two years.

“The governor believes the state needs to exercise caution and diligently analyze the issue,” Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, said in an email. “Should reclassification and/or expansion of cannabidiol use pass both chambers of the Iowa Legislature, the governor would carefully review the bill.”

Advocates seek to expand the new law in order to make it easier for patients and their parents to obtain the oil found in the marijuana plant that is sometimes used as a treatment for children with epilepsy.

As written, the law allows only for the oil’s usage; it does not allow for the product to be produced in Iowa. That causes a problem for those seeking to obtain the product, because similar programs in other states do not recognize out-of-state patients. And even if an Iowa resident can obtain the oil, he or she risks breaking laws in other states while transporting it back to Iowa.

“Once the rule becomes effective Jan. 30, 2015, we will print off an application, take it to our local neurologist, have him mail the form and wait for the form to be processed by the Iowa Department of Public Health,” said Sally Gaer, a West Des Moines mother of a 24-year-old daughter with epilepsy. "Upon approval, we will travel to the DOT to have our card processed. We will basically be unable to access any (marijuana plant oil) anywhere in the United States, so I am not sure what we will do with the card."

Gaer is among the critics who say the new law is mostly ineffective and needs to be broadened. Among the suggested solutions is allowing the medicinal oil, cannabidiol, to be produced and purchased in Iowa.

A representative of Branstad’s drug policy office expressed reservation with expanding the new law.

“I think we need to know more than we know today. That’s our opinion. That’s just one voice,” said Dale Woolery, associate director of Branstad’s Office of Drug Control Policy. “My preference is that we follow the lead of the FDA (the federal Food and Drug Administration), follow the science. But my understanding is that will be discussed.

“And I don’t know where it will go or what the outcome will be. We’re very interested in it. And we’re anxious to hear what some may propose or some of the ideas that might be put on the table.”

Another movement calls for the reclassification of marijuana from a Schedule I — the most dangerous — to a Schedule II drug. Advocates say such a change would allow for more research of marijuana, which could lead to more medicinal uses.

The Iowa Pharmacy Board last week considered a petition requesting it make that recommendation to the Legislature.

The pharmacy board did make such a recommendation in 2010, but the Legislature did not act. Last week, the board opted to delay until its January meeting its decision whether to make the recommendation again.

Some board members expressed concern that recommending the reclassification of drugs fell outside the board’s purview. Woolery lobbied against reclassifying marijuana, citing the drug’s potential for abuse and its lack of FDA approval for medical use. Marijuana remains illegal for medicinal use on the federal level, but President Barack Obama’s administration has instructed federal authorities not to pursue action in states that legalize medical marijuana programs.

Despite the temporary setback from her perspective, Gaer remains optimistic the state will act during the 2015 legislative session.

“Hopefully, things are really going to change in the next couple of months,” Gaer said.

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, did not sound eager to consider new medical marijuana legislation during the upcoming session.

“We need to figure out what exactly we did, how that’s being implemented, what does and doesn’t work, and then make a decision from that point,” Paulsen said

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