Medical marijuana links and discussion thread

I’ve been meaning to put up a thread on efforts to legalize cannabis for medical use in Iowa. State Senator Joe Bolkcom has been the lead sponsor of a bill that would create “a state regulated system to provide medical cannabis to Iowans under a doctor’s care.” Senate File 2215 (full text) did not meet the Iowa legislature’s first “funnel” deadline because of a lack of support from statehouse Republicans. However, more recently GOP lawmakers including Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, a nurse practitioner, have said they are open to discussions on the issue. Iowa House Republican Clel Baudler, who helped kill a similar bill last year, is dead-set against what he calls an “asinine” idea.

The Iowa Medical Marijuana website includes much more background on efforts to legalize the medical use of cannabis. The front page of that site includes links to recent news coverage and videos from an Iowa Senate hearing on March 5. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta changed his mind on the medical uses of marijuana while working on a documentary last year.

After the jump I’ve enclosed a statement from Bolkcom explaining the key points of SF 2215, highlights from the Des Moines Register’s latest polling on the issue, and comments from Governor Terry Branstad, West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer, and Representative Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

Any relevant thoughts or predictions are welcome in this thread. I expect advocates will have to work for at least a few more years before Iowa joins the 20 states and Washington, DC where medical marijuana is already legal.  

February 18 press release from State Senator Joe Bolkcom:

Suffering Iowans and their families

must wait at least another year for help

Medical cannabis fails again in Iowa Legislature

News conference video:

(Des Moines) Supporters of a state regulated system to provide medical cannabis to Iowans under a doctor’s care today both filed legislation and declared the issue dead for the session.

“Medical cannabis will not happen in Iowa without bipartisan support,” said Senator Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City.  “The simple truth is that no Republican lawmaker was willing to sign onto legislation that would give Iowans access to medicines used in 20 other states.”

Senate File 2215 is closely modeled after New Mexico’s law which made the use and possession of cannabis legal for patients “in a regulated system for alleviating symptoms caused by debilitating medical conditions and their medical treatments.”  In 2010, the Iowa Pharmacy Board recommended that Iowa follow New  Mexico’s approach and allow patients access to cannabis for certain medical conditions.”

“The public wants to move forward on this issue,” said Senator Matt McCoy of Des Moines.  “Unfounded fears on the part of Iowa state lawmakers are the reason why, to name one example, Iowa parents of epileptic children are denied access to medicine which substantially reduces their children’s seizures.”

The legislation would allow safe and legal access to cannabis for medical use. Patients who are under a doctor’s care and have certain debilitating conditions which include epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS/HIV, or spinal cord damage with intractable spasticity.  The program would be administered by the Iowa Department of Public Health and be overseen by a medical doctor.  The state of Iowa would license non-profit dispensaries and production facilities, who would pay licensing fees which would cover the cost of the program.

“We are elected to lead and put people first, even if it is an election year,” said Senator Tom Courtney of Burlington.  “We have examples of responsible, effective programs in other states, and yet the best Iowa can do is threaten to put people in jail for taking care of their families.”

Late last year, Bolkcom organized several public meetings in Iowa with Dr. Steven Jenison, the Iowa born and educated doctor who created the State of New Mexico’s respected medical marijuana program.  At those meetings, Bolkcom met with a variety of Iowa families who support his effort to establish a a science-based, compassionate approach to medical cannabis in Iowa.

“Already, Iowans are moving out of state so they can get the medicines they need for themselves and their families,” said Senator Bolkcom. “That’s sad to see but very understandable.  We could not get a single Republican co-sponsor, even when we offered to make the legislation much more limited. We simply won’t make progress until we put the focus on the people, not on the politics. And that hasn’t happened yet.”

The Des Moines Register’s latest statewide poll found strong support for medical marijuana.

A significant majority – 59 percent – of Iowa adults support making the drug legal for medical purposes, while 37 percent oppose the idea, the new poll shows. Those are about the same as findings from an Iowa Poll taken a year ago in February.

However, 69 percent of Iowans oppose legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and just 28 percent support the idea, the new poll shows. The numbers on that question were also nearly the same as a year ago. […]

Just 47 percent of Iowans 65 or older support legalizing medical marijuana, compared with 67 percent of those younger than 35. The split is even more dramatic on the question of legalizing recreational marijuana. Only 13 percent of Iowa seniors support that idea, but 39 percent of young adults do.

Legalizing medical marijuana draws support from 74 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of political independents, but just 46 percent of Republicans. Legalizing recreational marijuana is backed by 34 percent of Democrats, 33 percent of independents and 16 percent of Republicans.

The poll, conducted Feb. 23-26 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Bolkcom organized the March 5 Senate hearing where doctors and Iowans with chronic illness testified in support of legalizing the use of cannabis. West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer and his wife Sally Gaer appeared at the hearing. Their daughter suffers from a rare form of epilepsy. Gaer, a Republican, has done media appearances this year to raise awareness of the issue.

At his March 10 press conference, Governor Terry Branstad made clear that he’s still a “no.”

Governor Terry Branstad is warning there are too many “unintended consequences” to legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes in Iowa. Branstad met recently with the mothers of children who suffer from a severe form of epilepsy – mothers who say an oil derived from marijuana is a treatment that’s working for epileptics in other states.

“I think we have to be careful about drafting our laws just for a few people that have a particular problem or ailment,” Branstad said this morning during his weekly news conference. […]

“Already the biggest increase in drug abuse has been where you have unauthorized people using other people’s prescriptions,” Branstad said, “so the abuse of prescription drugs is a big problem in this state and I don’t want to do something that’s going to exacerbate that.” […]

“I just think there’s a lot more study that needs to go on before we embark on this kind of an experiment,” Branstad told reporters near the end of his news conference.

I suspect Branstad would feel differently if a loved one or close friend suffered from a chronic condition treatable with cannabis.

The governor’s remarks provoked an angry response from the Gaers. The Des Moines Register published their letters to the editor on March 12. Excerpts:

The governor’s comment Monday suggesting that the “few people who have a particular problem or ailment” who would benefit from medical marijuana should just move out of Iowa to get the medical help they need is the most insensitive comment he could make to families trying to raise a medically fragile/special-needs family member. […]

Instead of leading the effort to implement a safe, legal and effective medical marijuana program (like 20 other states have already done and many more are in the process of doing this year), the governor appears to prefer that medically fragile/special-needs Iowa families quit their jobs and move from their homes, communities, families, friends, churches, respite care givers and medical providers in order to get the medicine they need in another state. […]

The overwhelming majority of Iowans want the Legislature to implement a safe, legal and effective medical marijuana program, and legislators on both sides of the aisle are working diligently to develop such a program. The governor’s Healthiest State Initiative should include the health of the medically fragile/special-needs Iowans and not “run them off” to other states.

– Steven K. Gaer, mayor, West Des Moines

From the governor’s remarks on Monday, it appears he cares more about the unborn than the living.

I thought he was pro-life.

He says no medical marijuana for “a small subset of Iowa’s population.” In other words, he prefers that my daughter dies from SUDEP (Sudden Unexplained Death from Epilepsy).

– Sally Gaer, West Des Moines

I don’t recall hearing Representative Bruce Braley speak about cannabis before, but today he said he supports legalizing its medical use.

“My position has always been that it should be driven by the needs of patients and the determination of whether it’s safe and effective for them to use to reduce their pain,” Braley says. “I think this is going to be a continuing conversation that Iowans are going to have, and I think it’s an important one.”

Colorado has legalized recreational use of marijuana along with medicinal use. Braley says the recreational use of marijuana would have to be something state lawmakers decide after hearing from Iowans. “For me, the much more important issue is whether people who have chronic pain, and serious debilitating diseases are in need of access to something in the form of medical marijuana when other pain medications are not effective for them,” according to Braley. “And there’s been a lot of news coverage about families – including children – who are using this in the medicinal form,  because it is the only thing that they can tolerate to address their severe chronic pain.”

  • Johnson County supervisor Rod Sullivan


    *Time To Legalize Marijuana!

           It is time to legalize marijuana. This topic has gained traction over the past year, as Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use. We have even been talking about it here in Johnson County, which is quite a change!

           First, a disclaimer: I have never smoked pot. That may come as a surprise to folks who have known me a long time, as in my younger days I never shied away from a party. But the fact is, I have never used marijuana. I’ve been around it plenty; I just never indulged. So I speak as a person who has seen the effects of pot from up close, but never actually used the stuff personally.

           I also do not advocate anybody using mind-altering substances. If you choose not to use them, you are undoubtedly better off. More power to you. At the same time, I do not condemn folks who use responsibly. I feel that should be a choice individuals have.

           Even my disclaimer demonstrates the change in societal attitudes. In 1992, Bill Clinton felt the need to claim he “had never inhaled.” Since that time, people in public life have felt more comfortable admitting to marijuana use. This makes sense; studies show that between 35-45% of American adults have tried marijuana.

           I should also be clear as to what I am discussing. I am fine with the legalization of marijuana for medical use; I simply feel that is setting the bar too low. Same goes for “decriminalization”; I see that as a good step, but it does not go far enough. I believe strongly that hemp should be legalized, as it has huge industrial, economic and environmental benefits. But what I am really discussing here is making pot legal – period.

           Yes, there would be some restrictions. Children with developing brains don’t need the stuff. You should not be able to drive if you are so high as to be impaired. Current rules regarding smoking in public places should apply to marijuana just as they do to tobacco. Producers, retailers, and products should be regulated, licensed, inspected and taxed. So we are talking about a system akin to the existing laws governing the production, sale, and use of alcohol.

           People in the world of business are supposed to run ideas through a cost/benefit analysis. Many governments (including Johnson County) attempt to do the same. The legalization of marijuana comes out very favorably when viewed in terms of cost/benefit ratio.

           It can be argued that marijuana use negatively impacts many lives. There are undoubtedly people who have underachieved because of an overuse of marijuana. Is this a problem? Certainly.

           But weigh that versus the negative impacts on the lives of those who have been busted. Whereas simply using the stuff might make you a bit less productive, being caught tends to RUIN a person’s life!

           Getting busted can cost a person thousands of dollars upfront. But the REAL costs are over the long haul. Having a criminal record dramatically impacts one’s ability to find a good job and/or to get into a program of higher education. It breaks families apart. It stays with them forever. Why? Why do we choose to be so punitive in this case? Why do we choose to cost these people tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars over the course of their lives?

           In addition, these laws unfairly target the poor, the young, and people of color. There are many studies out there that show the percentage of teens and adults who use marijuana is virtually identical regardless of race. Yet people of color get busted at a rate EIGHT TIMES that of whites. Marijuana prohibition has done a lot to destroy black families. These draconian laws have set African Americans back generations.

           The ultimate cost, of course, is in human lives. While there is scant evidence that marijuana use has directly cost many lives, we know that marijuana prohibition has cost tens of thousands of lives. Again, I must ask – why?

           That is the personal cost, but there is also a huge societal cost. A group of over 500 top economists, including Milton Friedman, have estimated the cost of marijuana prohibition at $20 billion annually. $20 BILLION! That means it costs every man, woman, and child in the US $70 every year to maintain this silliness. That total is over three times the total annual budget for the State of Iowa. We’re talking real money here – money that could and should be put to better use.

           It should be noted that these costs, at least in Johnson County, do NOT include jailing. Contrary to popular belief, most inmates in the local jail are not there on pot charges. I’ve worked with folks who review the jail log, and I’ve never seen more than two people on any given day. (That does not mean there have NEVER been more than two, but in reviewing a dozen days, I’ve never seen it.) So just to be clear, legalizing marijuana would NOT obviate our jail overcrowding. OK – back to my main point.

           One of the arguments against legalization goes like this: “Then why not legalize every substance?” First, that is a red herring. Few folks are out there arguing to legalize everything. The push to legalize pot is based on the cost/benefit analysis. It is very favorable. Meth undoubtedly comes out much worse in a similar review.

    A better argument, in my opinion, is that of the slippery slope. That reasoning claims that marijuana is a “gateway drug”, and its’ use will lead people to harder drugs. There is a great deal of literature on this, and there seem to be persuasive arguments on both sides. This is where I come back once again to the idea of cost/benefit. We know that alcohol would fit the definition of a “gateway drug”. But it is legal. Why? I think the US experience with Prohibition proved that banning alcohol was a bad deal from a cost/benefit analysis.

    I’m tired of the timidity we see on this issue from our leaders. We know the laws are stupid. We know they unnecessarily cost us lives and money. There is no compelling reason to maintain the status quo. This is bad public policy, plain and simple.

    I called for Johnson County to add legalization of marijuana to our State and Federal Legislative priorities this year. There were two votes for it; I needed three. I’ll try again next year. Meanwhile, I urge you to make this an issue with your elected officials at every level. The emperor has no clothes… it is time we said so!

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