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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
About two weeks after Gov. Kim Reynolds was served with a legal challenge over Iowa’s medical cannabis program, state officials finally took action to make good on a state law passed a year ago.
The Iowa Legislature in 2020 passed a law making several changes to the state’s heavily restricted marijuana program. Tucked into the bottom of the bill was a section calling on the Iowa Department of Public Health to “request guarantees” that federal funding wouldn’t be impacted by the state’s marijuana system, which is in violation of federal law.
For months after she signed it, Reynolds and her administration made no apparent progress on making those requests. After an Iowa activist took the governor to court last month, the paperwork started moving.
Finally on April 23, Iowa public health officials sent letters to four federal agencies requesting protection of federal funding.
Policymakers’ worry is that state-regulated institutions such as schools and long-term care facilities could face federal legal action over their administration of medical marijuana, which still is on the federal government’s list of most dangerous and restricted substances. Put simply, state cannabis programs are in violation of federal law.
Carl Olsen, an Iowa marijuana reform advocate, has been pushing state leaders for years to minimize conflict between state and federal law. He filed a district court petition last month seeking to force the state to follow through on requesting federal funding guarantees.
Reynolds’ lawyers moved to dismiss the case in part because the letters had been sent since the suit was filed. Olsen and a district court judge agreed, and the case was dismissed this week.
But that probably is not the end of it. The documents sent to federal offices last month do not represent the state’s best effort at squaring our cannabis law with federal regulations.
The four nearly identical letters — sent to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Education, Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid — do not make any legal argument beyond quoting Iowa’s law.
Iowa’s public health and medical cannabidiol overseers last year said they favored a different strategy — petitioning the DEA to exempt Iowa’s program from the Controlled Substances Act. Federal regulations allow the DEA head to grant exemptions at his discretion. The Native American Church has such an exemption for its use of peyote, which like marijuana is a schedule I drug.
Owen Parker, chief of the Iowa Bureau of Medical Cannabidiol, said at a meeting last year, “This is the pathway that’s really the only way to do that.”
State officials still could submit a more detailed petition to the DEA, but they are likely to wait for responses to the recent round of letters.
Even if Iowa receives assurance that federal funding will not be affected, that would not solve the problem. Iowa’s patients and marijuana businesses still would be violating federal law. Short of legalization, a full DEA exemption is the only workable solution.
“It’s a sad day when state government chooses to ignore federal law rather than comply with it. What a horrible example of scofflaw and disorder. The people of Iowa deserve better,” Olsen wrote in a court filing last week.
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