Iowa likely won't be the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana any time soon, but there has been plenty of talk about the idea with two bills in the Legislature and a possible recommendation on legalization Wednesday by the state pharmacy board.
Although both legislative measures are considered dead for the session, backers said support is growing and some expect the Iowa Board of Pharmacy to add to the momentum when it discusses the issue and considers recommending whether marijuana should be allowed for medical use.
"We're supposedly the drug experts and so, I would hope that the Legislature would consider the recommendation valuable to them," said Lloyd Jessen, executive director of the Iowa Board of Pharmacy.
Medical marijuana initially came before the pharmacy board in 2008 when the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and others petitioned the board to remove marijuana from the Legislature's Schedule I classification. To be classified as Schedule I, a drug must have a high potential for abuse and no safe medical use.
The board rejected the request, then took up the matter again in 2009 at the order of a Polk County judge. The judge issued his order in response to a petition by the ACLU, ruling that the board must review the classification and decide whether marijuana has an accepted medical use.
The board again declined to reclassify marijuana but agreed to hold four hearings throughout the state, followed by a scientific review and possible recommendation to the Legislature.
If it backs the use of marijuana as medicine, it would be the first pharmacy board in the nation to do so before voters or lawmakers make such use legal.
Peggy Whitworth, one of two board members who are not pharmacists, said the panel had devoted tremendous time to the issue.
"We're doing the research, we're listening to the people," Whitworth said. "We're reading and reading and reading."
Whitworth, of Cedar Rapids, pushed the board to study the issue, in part because of the pain her mother suffered before she died from bone cancer. She attended one hearing in Iowa City and listened to recorded testimony from the other meetings.
"When you hear person after person talk about the pain they're in and the side effects from approved medications, it just tears your heart up," she said.
After examining medical marijuana programs in the 14 states where it is legal, the seven-member board was most impressed by the program in New Mexico. It's one of five states where the Legislature established the program; voters approved medical marijuana laws in the other states.
"It's what they (the board) consider to be a pretty good program," Jessen said. New Mexico "got the support of law enforcement and that's a biggie because, in general, law enforcement do not want medical marijuana programs to deal with."
Although more states have established medical marijuana laws, Jessen acknowledged many people still worry any legalization would lead to more abuse of the drug.
That's one reason Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, opposed a House bill that would have allowed medical use of marijuana. Similar measures were filed in the House and Senate, and both are considered dead.
Smith, a licensed social worker and drug counselor, said he sees too much dependence on marijuana to believe it is medicine.
"I haven't bought into the idea of the therapeutic benefits outweighing the problems of using the drug," he said.
But Kurt Gardinier, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national nonprofit organization that supports medical marijuana, said legislators are increasingly out of step with the public.
A Des Moines Register poll published Tuesday seems to back up that claim, with 64 percent of Iowans favoring allowing medical marijuana in the state.
"In some cases, politicians in various states seem apprehensive about taking up the issue of medical marijuana," Gardinier said. "We think it's a foolish position to be in because of the overwhelming support of medical marijuana across the country.
Sen. Merlin Bartz, R-Grafton, supports legalizing medical marijuana but said it remains a hard one for legislators to take up.
"Politically, it's touchy subject matter," he said. "If it's going to progress it needs bipartisan support."
Even Sen. Joe Bolkcom, who filed a medical marijuana bill in the Senate, said his proposal needs work, and he expects more discussion next year.
"It's clearly something that's a work in progress to find an Iowa approach to making marijuana available for medical purposes," said Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. "Like any issue, I think it takes a few years."
Neither Jessen nor Whitworth would predict whether the board would make a recommendation or what side it might favor.
But regardless of where the board stands, Bartz said he expects lawmakers to keep talking about the issue.
"The legislator part of me knows that sometimes an issue has reached the point where it has to be discussed," Bartz said. "I think this particular issue has reached the point where it has crossed the threshold and we need to sit down and talk about it."-- Associated Press