Medical cannabis bill stalled, but Branstad "open" to expanding legal use

A bill that would expand the legal uses of cannabis oil remains stuck in the Iowa House Ways & Means Committee, more than six weeks after Republicans on the House Commerce Committee significantly reduced its scope. But Governor Terry Branstad said yesterday he is “open” to further action on the issue before state lawmakers adjourn for the year.

Advocates for expanding the legal use of medical cannabis in Iowa note that very few families have benefited from the limited bill lawmakers approved during the final hours of the 2014 legislative session. Only certain seizure disorders qualify for obtaining cannabis oil, and Iowans affected by those illnesses cannot obtain the cannabis derivative from any dispensaries in the state. They either go without cannabis oil or risk breaking the law to order it or bring it back from other states.

A bill that the Iowa Senate approved in 2015 would increase the number of cannabis derivatives that could be used for medical purposes, but would not extend to marijuana in smokeable form. That bill also would have legalized the use of cannabis for “debilitating medical conditions” such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, AIDS or HIV, glaucoma, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), Ehlers-danlos syndrome, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

In February, House Commerce Committee Chair Peter Cownie introduced his own medical cannabis bill, modeled on the legislation that cleared the Senate last year. Connie’s constituents include West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer and his wife Sally Gaer, who have been active in the medical marijuana movement for years, based on their experience raising a daughter with a severe seizure disorder.

Before Cownie’s bill was considered in a House Commerce subcommittee, a new version scaled back the number of acceptable derivatives of cannabis and reduced the list of “debilitating medical conditions” to three: intractable epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and cancer, if a patient has been given less than a year to live. The revised bill would exclude Iowans suffering from many other chronic or fatal diseases, as well as cancer patients who are seeking relief from the side effects of early treatments (so would not have received any terminal diagnosis). The scaled-back bill cleared that subcommittee and the full Commerce committee before being sent over to Ways & Means.

House Ways & Means Committee Chair Tom Sands voted against the cannabis bill on Commerce. Speaking to the Des Moines Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel yesterday, he confirmed that he has not decided whether to assign the bill to a subcommittee.

“I’m still trying to gather facts on science and if it’s driving this (conversation) or whether it’s emotion,” Sands said. “… And while I have a lot of sympathy for the parents that have some of these children that are looking for hope, we don’t want to do the wrong thing that actually gives them worse side effects in years to come or sends the wrong message to the rest of our kids on drug use.” […]

Sands said Monday he will weigh the sentiment of his caucus before moving forward. If there’s “overwhelming support,” he said he could see assigning the bill to a subcommittee.

Sands is late to the party. More than 20 states already allow medical marijuana, most with fewer restrictions than the bill that Iowa senators proposed last year. State Senator Joe Bolkcom, the legislature’s leading voice for medical cannabis legislation in recent years, has worked closely with Dr. Steven Jenison, “the Iowa born and educated doctor who created the State of New Mexico’s respected medical marijuana program.” Nearly two and a half years ago, Jenison came to Iowa to discuss the evidence supporting medical cannabis and how New Mexico regulates its use.

In any event, Sands is barking up the wrong tree if he’s looking for scientific evidence to support the latest version of the medical cannabis bill before his committee. State Representative Guy Vander Linden admitted in February that the changes were not based on any input from medical professionals, but reflected “what we thought could pass” in the House Republican caucus. For example, Vander Linden acknowledged it was “more arbitrary than anything else” for the revised bill to permit the use of cannabis oil for Iowans suffering from multiple sclerosis, but not for those who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Meanwhile, Governor Branstad told reporters yesterday he hasn’t ruled out further action on this front. Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson posted the audio and excerpts from his press conference:

“I’ve indicated a willingness to work with the legislature on this as well as other issues,” Branstad says. “I reserve judgment until we see it in its final form, but certainly this is an issue there is some strong interest in.” […]

“We have been open to and met with people about resolving this issue throughout the session,” Branstad says.

Branstad isn’t specifying what he might accept, but he says it’s important to keep marijuana out of the hands of people who would use the drug “for illicit purposes.”

“What we have is cannabis oil which is basically designed to treat a particular medical condition and the question is whether that should be expanded to some others and whether you could have it produced in the state of Iowa,” Branstad says.

Kudos to the advocates who have reached out directly to the governor and his staff. They have made headway since last year, when Branstad sounded skeptical about legislative proposals to allow cannabis to be dispensed here. He floated the idea that Illinois might allow Iowans to access to marijuana derivatives produced in our neighbor to the east (a non-starter, according to knowledgeable politicians).

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. Supporters of broader access to medical cannabis should reach out to Iowa House Republicans, whose opinions carry the most weight with Sands. You can find contact information for all state representatives here.

UPDATE: Emily Wenger of the Muscatine Journal covered a local legislative forum on April 2. Democratic State Senators Chris Brase and Tom Courtney said they favor expanding the medical cannabis law. As for Sands:

“I think there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” he said, and added, “the bill sits in my committee and it’s sitting there until I get some direction from the [H]ouse Republican leadership on how they want it and when it’ll be debated.” […]

[Jon] Custis, also a veteran, spoke on behalf of veterans like him who experience pain and PTSD that is helped by medical cannabis, many of whom he said no other drug worked.

“I’m here this morning to ask that Representative Sands champion the vets in Iowa and put PTSD and pain back on the list for medical cannabis,” he said, and added, “Please stand up for the veterans who cannot stand up for themselves.”

While Sands assured him the veterans were being heard, he reiterated his statement that he is waiting for direction from Republican leadership.

Nothing like a seven-term representative waiting for instructions from his party’s leaders, rather than using his own critical thinking skills.

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