Change the law, Governor Branstad

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Gov. Terry Branstad says his critics are change averse.

On education funding, mental health system reforms and other issues, the governor told our editorial board this week that many folks who disagree with his policies fear necessary changes. Our governor of the present with a long past is bringing us the future, he contends.

But when talk turns to medical marijuana, it seems like all the governor really wants to change is the subject.

He points to California as a good example of medical marijuana gone bad. I agree. And a medical marijuana program in Iowa would look nothing like it. After all, this is the guy who is constantly contending that Iowa can do better.

He says look at all the problems in Colorado, where pot is legal for recreational use. OK, but no one is talking seriously about making pot legal for non-medical uses. It’s a political non-starter.

Branstad is “empathetic” to suffering folks who want access to cannabis to ease their pain and other symptoms, but he’s willing to stick with a new law that doesn’t work, and unwilling to craft one that does.

“I think you’ve got to be really careful. And there’s a lot of things people haven’t thought through in this whole thing,” Branstad said. And yet, it seems like it’s the governor who hasn’t thought this through. Careful, unfortunately, means do nothing.

Look, I understand why Branstad views this issue the way he does. His lengthy political career has been steeped in drug war thinking. The only ways to deal with stuff like marijuana are tough penalties and new prisons. Thinking otherwise is difficult, and plenty of people are in the governor’s ear telling him he should not change. People whose own jobs depend on keeping the war going strong.

So I know where he’s coming from. But I also know where we’re going. An Iowa Poll out this week shows 70 percent of Iowans in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical use, up 12 points in a year. That includes 54 percent of Republicans who favor it.

Last year, bipartisan majorities approved a bill allowing parents of children with intractable epilepsy to get a state card permitting them to legally possess oil derived from marijuana. A laudable move.

Trouble is, thanks to federal and state laws elsewhere, Iowans can’t obtain the oil. So the law passed last year is useless, unless the state allows the oil to be produced in Iowa.

Democrats unveiled a bill Tuesday that lays groundwork for a true, regulated and limited medical marijuana program in Iowa. It would allow a handful of licensed producers and a longer list of illnesses that would qualify for doctor-approved use, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and AIDS. Smoking marijuana isn’t allowed.

There are many details to work out. I say it’s time to get started. Iowa will, eventually, have a medical marijuana program. There’s no good reason to wait. Political skittishness doesn’t count.

I believe Branstad is empathetic, and is as good at judging political winds as anyone. He needs to put those instincts and his expertise as a former medical school president to work on this. Don’t change the subject, governor, change the law.

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