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Marijuana law leaves some patients looking for more access in Iowa

Lawmakers unlikely to expand 2014 measure aimed at people with epilepsy

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By Krista Johnson, IowaWatch

When Logan Edwards returned home to Davenport in 2008 after his deployment to Iraq with the Marines, he was anything but the same.

He started using alcohol to cope with anxiety, insomnia and nightmares. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Edwards drank every day for six months before seeking help. By the time he got it, it was almost too late.

After many trials and errors and no real relief, Edwards, now 28, said he found a way to live in a functional and productive manner through the advice of a Vietnam vet: Smoke weed.

Edwards said his life immediately started to change for the better once he started smoking marijuana for his condition. But he found a major problem: Iowa law doesn’t allow that.

Iowa’s Medical Cannabidiol Act, which became law in July 2014, allowed the use of cannabidiol, or CBD, to treat epilepsy.

At first glance, the law seemed like a breakthrough for Iowans who had been advocating for medical marijuana. But the act leaves out two important pieces: where caregivers and patients can obtain CBD; and help for people who might benefit from medical marijuana but do not have epilepsy.

Unlikely to change

Changes to address those issues don’t appear to be coming soon, although a Des Moines Register Iowa Poll this year found that 70 percent of Iowa adults support legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.

“The Republicans have no plans to bring it up as an issue,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, the floor manager of a bill that would loosen access to CBD. “I think it will be an uphill battle next Legislature.”

Research Underway

The 2014 law put the University of Iowa in charge of researching the effects of CBD on epilepsy. CBD is derived from the cannabis plant but contains no THC, the part of cannabis that gives users a high.

GW Pharmaceuticals, the company that provides CBD for the UI’s research, is in charge of a nationwide study.

Steven Schultz, vice president of international relations for GW, said results so far have been optimistic. He said CBD has been “effective in reducing total seizures in these patients with a very tolerable side effect profile.”

So far only 71 registration cards have been issued for Iowa patients. All 71 have to cross state lines to obtain CBD, breaking federal laws by transporting it back to Iowa.

The cards are issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health, in collaboration with the Iowa Department of Transportation. The DOT is involved in case patients or caregivers are stopped while driving.

Senate File 484 was proposed to solve these issues and make medical marijuana a reality in Iowa. The Senate passed the bill last session, but it is unlikely to pass in the House next year.

This bill expands the 2014 law, allowing the production and sale of marijuana for medicinal purposes. It adds several “debilitating medical conditions” for use of medicinal marijuana, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and PTSD.

Critics of expansion

Opponents said the bill has too many flaws.

Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, said he supports “products that are considered to be medicinal in power.” But “until it goes through the medical proofs and is tested, it’s not medicine.”

Chelgren said the bill “completely ignored federal laws.” The federal government considers cannabis a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse.

Moving to Colorado

While lawmakers disagree, people such as Edwards continue to wait, or move.

At one point, Edwards was driving back and forth from Iowa to Colorado regularly to buy 4 to 6 ounces of marijuana each trip.

Eventually, the fear of jail became too overwhelming, he said. He moved to Denver last year.

“Things have just gotten much, much better,” he said. “I’m doing great here.”

• This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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