DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate on Thursday approved a narrow opening for Iowa parents whose children suffer from severe epilepsy to be able to access cannabis oil as a treatment option.
After a debate charged with emotion, senators voted 36-12 to pass a bill that legalizes the possession and medical use under certain conditions of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of marijuana that backers say possesses a wide range of therapeutic benefits. Ten Republicans joined 26 Democrats in passing the bill.
“The oil that we are talking about does not produce a high,” said Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines. “The bill we put together will not open the door for recreational use.”
The measure, which now goes to the Iowa House for consideration, would give prosecutorial immunity to people who possess cannabidiol, a non-smokable oil extract of marijuana with a low THC level to treat seizures. It would require patients or their caregivers to obtain a state-issued registration card to possess the drug and to have a neurologist’s recommendation to obtain the license. The act will sunset July 1, 2017.
Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan, said she was concerned that young people who read headlines that Iowa was legalizing a marijuana derivative and would get the wrong impression. Others expressed concern over the lack of FDA approval and potential long-term effects of cannabis oil use.
“We are sending a message whether we like it or not that marijuana is OK,” said Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, who voted for the bill. “It is a gateway drug and I hope the young people understand that.”
Only permanent Iowa residents who are at least 18 years of age, have a written recommendation from a neurologist and a registration card for the medical treatment of “intractable” epilepsy may possess and use cannabidiol. No other medical conditions are eligible.
Primary caregivers — including parents, hospice employees and community-based health care service providers — also are authorized to possess and administer the use of cannabidiol on behalf of a patient, including those under 18 years of age.
“We’re opening a gate here and we need to come to grips with that,” said Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City. A father of three and “no” vote, he said he struggled with the issue and wondered if lawmakers next session would asked to expand access to people dealing with cancer or other painful, chronic conditions.
“We have an opportunity to do something here today that’s pretty special, and I want to thank the mothers for coming before us and having the courage to stand up when people were saying no. This is unacceptable. We need to move forward.”
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, expressed concern that marijuana and its derivatives are illegal under federal drug policy and, even though Iowa is granting immunity, parents seeking the cannabis oil would have to cross through states where cannabidiol is not legal and face arrest on federal charges.
“I think we’re giving a false sense of security to these folks,” she said.
Gov. Terry Branstad said he has talked with the governor of Utah, who recently joined Alabama and Wisconsin in approving similar measures, and his staff worked with lawmakers “to make sure that it is very limited and very focused on children with epilepsy.”
That said, however, the governor said he will “reserve judgment” until he’s seen the cannabis oil bill in its final form.
“I met with the parents and I do have empathy for the families, but I have concerns — I don’t want unintended consequences of this getting into the hands of people who shouldn’t have it or it’s not prescribed for,” he added.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller took a cautious approach to Thursday’s legislative action.
“I’ve learned an enormous lesson on medical marijuana. So many states where that has happened it has been done in such a way that it is quasi-legalization of marijuana,” Miller said.
l Gazette Des Moines Bureau Reporter James Lynch contributed to this report. Comments: (515) 243-7220; firstname.lastname@example.org