Key senator confident Iowa Senate will pass bipartisan medical cannabis bill

Iowa’s current medical cannabis program sunsets on July 1, and no proposal to replace it advanced in a state House or Senate committee before the legislature’s first “funnel” deadline. However, appropriations bills are exempt from the funnel, and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Charles Schneider confirmed today he is working with colleagues in both parties to make medical cannabis more available to Iowans suffering from a wider range of medical conditions.

Speaking about some of his top priorities at a March 18 legislative forum in West Des Moines, Schneider said,

I’ve been working on a bill with Senate Democrats and some Senate and House members–some House Republicans and Democrats as well–on a bill that would broaden our medical cannabis bill. It would expand the number of conditions for which one can use medical cannabis. It would allow for the production and distribution of medical cannabis in this state as well.

That’s something that I am certain we will be able to get out of the Senate and over to the House before the session ends.

Republican State Representative Peter Cownie commented a few minutes later that he wanted to “applaud Senator Schneider on his efforts on medical marijuana. It will be a disappointing session if we can’t get this done, and to hear that should give everyone great solace and hope that we can get it done.” Cownie chairs the House Commerce Committee, which in 2016 approved a scaled-back medical cannabis bill that subsequently died in the House Ways and Means Committee.

State Senator Brad Zaun–the only Republican to vote for a fairly expansive Democratic medical cannabis proposal in 2015–introduced Senate Study Bill 1176 last month. Brianne Pfannenstiel reported for the Des Moines Register at the time,

The bill calls on the state to authorize up to four manufacturing facilities by December 2017 and authorize up to 12 dispensaries by April 2018. Iowans with debilitating illnesses could work with their physicians to obtain state-issued cards authorizing them to purchase medical cannabis.

Speaking to the Register’s Tony Leys on March 2, Zaun “expressed optimism” a funnel-proof appropriations bill would pick up language from his proposal. Schneider is the Senate majority whip as well as Appropriations Committee chair, so if he is confident a medical cannabis bill can clear the upper chamber, he probably has good reason.

The problem will be getting Iowa House Republicans on board. Although former Ways and Means Chair Tom Sands–who buried last year’s medical cannabis bill–retired in 2016, there is no consensus in the GOP caucus on this issue. In theory, a medical cannabis bill could pass with only ten Republican votes, plus the 41 House Democrats. In reality, no legislation reaches the House floor without the blessing of Speaker Linda Upmeyer. A nurse practitioner by training, Upmeyer voted for the current law in the final hours of the 2014 legislative session. But she has never advocated broadening the program. Leys reported earlier this month that Upmeyer has “expressed skepticism about Iowa moving to allow more medical uses of marijuana while the federal government continues to consider such uses illegal.”

Twenty-eight states have medical marijuana or cannabis programs more comprehensive than Iowa’s. The latest statewide poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found 80 percent of Iowans support medical marijuana, with majorities of all age groups and political persuasions in favor.

Notably, the Selzer poll asked respondents about legalizing “the use of marijuana for medical purposes,” which goes further than any proposal under consideration in the legislature. Even the bill the Iowa Senate approved in 2015–the most comprehensive medical cannabis proposal to gain any traction here–would not have allowed the use of marijuana in smokeable form, regardless of the illness. Advocates say inhaled marijuana offers more relief for patients with some conditions.

Under the current law, “only 132 ill Iowans have obtained cards” for medical cannabis. The program excludes people suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions for which cannabis can ease symptoms. It doesn’t even work well for people with seizure disorders, as Erin Miller can attest. She’s been telling her story to Iowa lawmakers since 2015. By the way, Courtney Crowder’s profile of Miller from earlier this year is a good read.

I’m skeptical the proposal Schneider, Zaun, Democratic Senator Joe Bolkcom, and others are working on will get a vote on the House floor before the legislature adjourns for the year. House Public Safety Committee Chair Clel Baudler introduced a bill that would allow the use of medical cannabis for certain “debilitating medical conditions,” and would permit production, distribution and dispensing of cannabis in Iowa. Baudler’s bill didn’t go far enough for advocates, but it would have improved on the status quo. His proposal made it through a subcommittee, then died in committee because of Republican opposition.

GOP State Representative Jarad Klein then introduced a more limited proposal. His bill would allow the current medical cannabis program to continue after July 1. Klein’s bill also instructed the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to reclassify a cannabidiol product “approved as a prescription drug medication” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a schedule II controlled substance in Iowa, if the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration designated the medication as a schedule II product under federal code. That proposal, now called House File 520, got through the Public Safety Committee but hasn’t made it onto the House scheduled debate calendar yet. Democratic State Representatives Bob Kressig and John Forbes have offered an amendment to strengthen the bill and create a mechanism for adding medical conditions to the list of “debilitating” ailments for which patients could access cannabis products.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

  • Correction

    HF520 was on the House debate calendar for an entire week (March 6 – 10). It was pulled last Monday (March 13) after I wrote to all the House members (March 12) about a meeting I had with the Iowa Board of Pharmacy on Wednesday, March 8. The pharmacy board says the bill does not give them any authority they do not already have. Here is a copy of the letter I sent to all 100 representatives.

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