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Bill would extend, expand Iowa's medical cannabis program

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DES MOINES — Iowa’s medical cannabis program would be extended and dramatically expanded under legislation that received its first hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol.

A three-person panel of legislators advanced a proposal to extend a program that permits the use of a medicinal byproduct of the marijuana plant for treatment of intractable epilepsy. The program is set to expire in July.

The proposal also would expand the program to permit the product to be grown and sold in Iowa and create a process by which more ailments would be covered.

“I’ve worked on this issue for some time,” said Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls. ”The bill is actually a good step in the right direction.”

The proposal was introduced in the Republican-controlled Iowa House by Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, chairman of the public safety committee through which the bill is tracking.

Advocates for medical cannabis have pressed state lawmakers to expand the current program, which was started in 2014 and permits use but makes it difficult for Iowans to access the product. Advocates have had a persistent presence at the Capitol the past few years, sharing success stories of people who have seen a dramatic reduction in seizures and pain after using medical cannabis.

“Erin Miller (of Des Moines), whose son Abram benefited from the current bill, now is 600 days seizure-free on (medical cannabis) oil. And she wanted me to express that to you all,” Tom Duncan of Jefferson told lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing.

Opponents of the proposal cite its break from federal laws, which do not recognize cannabis oils and extracts as approved medicinal products.

However, 28 states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The previous federal administration said it would not pursue action against states with medical and recreational marijuana laws, and Klein said Wednesday that state lawmakers have reached out to the new administration to seek clarification.

The proposal also provides an avenue for more ailments to be covered by the program. Medical cannabis now may be used only to treat intractable epilepsy; the bill would allow for more maladies to be added if recommended by the University of Iowa’s medical college and approved by state lawmakers.

Advocates say medical cannabis also can be beneficial in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and some forms of cancer.

“It’s very important for us that people have safe and legal access,” said Sally Gaer of West Des Moines, co-founder of a medical cannabis advocacy group whose daughter has a rare form of epilepsy.

Lawmakers on the panel noted the legislation does not permit the recreational use of marijuana and allows use only of a byproduct with such low potency that users cannot get high.

“This is not recreational, and folks need to understand that,” said Rep. Jared Klein, R-Keota, who was serving Wednesday as manager of the bill. “This is about medicine. This is about helping folks.”

The legislation was approved by the three-member panel — Kressig, Klein and Rep. Kristi Hager, R-Waukon. The bill now is eligible for consideration by the full committee. Klein said he expects the proposal to be approved by the committee, which would keep it eligible for consideration this session ahead of a key legislative deadline at the end of next week.

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