Branstad open to medical cannabis change

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DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday he would be willing to consider doing more for patients with severe health problems looking to expanded access to marijuana-derived medical cannabis as a possible pain reliever.

“I’ve indicated a willingness to work with the Legislature on this,” Branstad told reporters at this weekly news conference. “We’ve been open to and met with people about resolving this issue throughout the session.”

With the split-control Legislature expected to end the 2016 session this month, advocates pushing to expand Iowa’s limited medical cannabis law are calling on the Republican-controlled House to consider permitting the production and dispensation of cannabidiol in Iowa, and expanding the list of ailments permitted for treatment.

Current law — signed by Branstad — allows Iowa residents to possess and use up to 32 ounces of cannabidiol, a derivative of the marijuana plant, for the sole purpose of treating intractable epilepsy and its side effects. Iowans under a physician’s care who acquired an approved cannabidiol registration card must obtain the product from other states that produce cannabidiol. But few sell to out-of-state residents, which advocates say makes Iowa’s law unworkable.

Senate 484, which passed with the support of 25 Democrats and one GOP senator last session, would establish a comprehensive medical cannabis program for Iowans seeking relief from debilitating diseases and conditions that proponents say builds in safeguards to keep it from ushering in legalized use of marijuana for recreational purposes. It also would authorize the production and dispensing of medical cannabis for expanded uses and medical conditions.

The Iowa House has not acted on that measure. Rep. Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines, has introduced legislation that would allow for the production and dispensation of cannabidiol but contains a shorter list of treatable ailments. Rep. Tom Sands, R-Wapello, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, has indicated he is awaiting word from House leaders before advancing the measure.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City said if Branstad is serious about working with lawmakers to resolve the issue and join 23 states that have legalized marijuana for medical use then he should talk with House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, who is stopping the bill in the House.

“Iowans have been begging us for more than two years to pass a responsible, controlled medical cannabis program that would provide safe, legal access to medicine that we know works in addressing a whole host of chronic conditions,” Bolkcom said. “It would be terrific if Gov. Branstad would get more engaged in this issue and sit down with Speaker Upmeyer and convince her it’s time to move forward.”

Branstad said he wants to make sure any changes the state would make would guard against “unintended consequences and access to marijuana to people that would be using it for inappropriate or illicit purposes.” But Bolkcom dismissed that argument given that nearly 150,000 Americans current have access to cannabis as medicine.

“If you’re going to help people, you have to produce the medicine here in Iowa,” said Bolkcom. “You have to be able to dispense it here in Iowa and the governor, if he can’t get comfortable with that, is just pandering.”

The Iowa City Democrat noted the nation faces a problem with opioid abuse but nobody is saying painkilling medication should not be available. “Medical cannabis is no different,” said Bolkcom. “It has to be done in a controlled, responsible way and I think we’re smart enough here in Iowa to figure that out.”

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