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Lawmakers to introduce bills to decriminalize marijuana

Gov. Terry Branstad is completely opposed

A marijuana starter plant is for sale at a medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle, Washington, in this November 20, 2012 file photo. (REUTERS/Anthony Bolante)
A marijuana starter plant is for sale at a medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle, Washington, in this November 20, 2012 file photo. (REUTERS/Anthony Bolante)

DES MOINES — Legislation to decriminalize marijuana will be introduced when Iowa lawmakers return to Des Moines in January.

That’s for certain.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, plans on introducing two measures; one would remove the drug from the most restrictive listing, the other would create a way for patients to get medical marijuana.

Also certain is neither will become law.

Gov. Terry Branstad has given no indication that he is anything but completely opposed to the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana. Neither has anyone in the Branstad administration.

“I think if people really take the time to take a look at the issue, they’ll realize that (legalization) is not a wise decision,” said Steve Lukan, director of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy. “The associated social ills that would come with (legalization) really have to be thought through, and once they are, I think you’ll have more people saying it’s not a good idea.”

Twenty states — Illinois and New Hampshire being the most recent — have approved either by law or referendum medical marijuana since California became the first to decriminalize in 1996. Colorado and Washington have approved the drug for recreational use.

There’s been a steady push in Iowa, too, but it’s never gotten much traction either in the Statehouse or at the grassroots level.

“The pressure comes from national groups,” said Lloyd Jessen, executive director of the Iowa Board of Pharmacy. “We don’t hear from the public at large, we’re not hearing from patients and doctors or anybody.”

Recommendations

The state had administrative rules that allowed for the “medical use of marijuana” through a therapeutic research center from Oct. 1, 1979, to June 30, 1981, but a research program was never implemented.

Perhaps the closest the state ever came to marijuana being available for medicinal purposes in recent years was in 2010 when the Board of Pharmacy voted 6-0 to recommend the drug be moved from a Schedule I classification to Schedule II.

Those schedules come from the federal Controlled Substances Act. A Schedule I drug is one that has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” Drugs on the list include marijuana, peyote and LSD.

A Schedule II drug is one that does have an accepted medical use and can, in some cases, be prescribed to patients. The list includes cocaine, opium and methadone.

The recommendation came after four public hearings in 2009 and testimony from a range of folks, including a member of the Iowa Attorney General’s office, a representative from the Iowa Board of Medicine and an AIDS patient.

“The Legislature never reacted to it,” Jessen said. “It’s a very complicated issue.”

The Pharmacy Board members changed after the vote with only two of the seven who made the 2010 recommendation still on it. The board hasn’t picked up the issue since.

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last month the Justice Department would defer the enforcement of federal drug laws as they pertain to Colorado and Washington, Lukan fired off a letter.

“Deprioritizing the prosecution of large-scale marijuana distribution and sales in certain states threatens to deprioritize the health and safety of Iowans and other Americans,” Lukan wrote in his letter to Holder. “In Iowa, over 60% of our youth who are in drug treatment programs cite marijuana as their primary drug of choice. I believe it is a drug that holds great harm for our youth population, depriving them of the opportunity to achieve their full potential in life.”

Following the law

The Pharmacy Board’s decision to recommend to the Legislature but take no further action on marijuana legalization may seem peculiar given the controversy surrounding the Iowa Board of Medicine’s recent decision to prohibit telemedicine abortions in the state without going to the Legislature.

Telemedicine allows a doctor to prescribe medicine to a patient without physically examining him or her. Iowa has allowed doctors to prescribe pregnancy-termination medication using that method since 2008. In August, the Board of Medicine voted to ban the practice for abortion medication, although other forms of telemedicine still are allowed.

The reason for the difference is how state law is written and the authority of each board.

Moving marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug requires changes in state code, which the Pharmacy Board doesn’t have the authority to do. That’s why it can only make a recommendation to the Legislature. But the Board of Medicine does have the authority to regulate the standard of care for patients, so it can say whether prescribing pregnancy termination pills remotely fits the standard of care its members want.

“In each instance, state law was followed. The Legislature decides the powers and responsibilities of state boards, which is the standard followed by the governor’s office,” Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht wrote in an e-mail. “Regulations and board actions can only be made and taken pursuant to state law.”

Still, that doesn’t necessarily help people understand the process, said Chris Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

“As many others have said, it is one of the great ironies of the American political system; the Congress or a state legislature has all this power to make laws, but the laws they pass are so vague that it is up to bureaucracies to implement the law by passing specific rules about how exactly the goals of the law will be achieved,” he said. “The great example scholars always talk about is the Clean Air Act — Congress passed a law requiring the air to be clean but it was up to federal and state agencies like the EPA to actually determine how the goal of clean air would be achieved.”

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