IOWA LEGISLATURE

After heated debate, Iowa lawmakers OK modest expansion of medical marijuana

Reynolds vetoed more robust proposal last year

Jacob Roberts moves his fingers along the sequins of a pillow as he sits on a couch at his home in Coralville, Iowa, on
Jacob Roberts moves his fingers along the sequins of a pillow as he sits on a couch at his home in Coralville, Iowa, on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019. Roberts, who is autistic, is given medical cannabis to alleviate chronic pain from an inflammatory disease. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — After a heated and contentious debate that included commentary on legislative impacts on minorities and the recent protests over the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, Iowa lawmakers on Wednesday approved a modest expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program.

The proposal that passed the Iowa Senate on Wednesday is weaker than a proposed expansion approved in 2019 by the same body. That proposal, however, was vetoed by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The new proposal matches one that was approved by the Iowa House and has Reynolds’ blessing. It puts a much more strict limitation on the potency of the medical cannabis product that patients in the program can obtain.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said the new law not only fails to improve the state’s current medical cannabis program — which he described as one of the least effective in the nation — it actually makes it weaker.

“Here we are, five years after passing our original law … and tonight you’re going to make it even worse. Wow. No small task, colleagues,” Bolkcom said.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, argued that while the bill was not his preferred version, the new proposal does make modest improvements.

“I would rather this be a stronger bill, but this is something that has been negotiated,” Zaun said. “It’s not perfect. It is a step forward.”

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House File 2589 caps the potency of the medical cannabis product that patients can obtain at 4.5 grams over 90 days.

The Senate previously passed a proposal for a limit of 25 grams over 90 days.

Reynolds vetoed that and relied on the recommendation of the state medical cannabis board, which recommended the 4.5-gram limit. That board is comprised of physicians and other experts appointed by the governor.

“I figured this year we’d come back, and we’d tell the governor, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ ” said Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant. “We shouldn’t be amending (the previous Senate proposal). We should be ramming this down the throat of the governor and saying this is what Iowans are demanding on this.”

The newly negotiated proposal also adds severe intractable autism and PTSD to the list of conditions for which patients can obtain medical cannabis.

“There’s always issues that can make (a bill) better or resolve differently,” said Sen. Tom Greene, R-Burlington, who is a pharmacist. “This is an issue where we need to take that forward.”

With Senate approval on a 32-17 vote, the bill heads to the governor.

The debate also got heated when Bolkcom railed against a provision that allows businesses to deny unemployment insurance to former workers who are found to have marijuana in their system.

Bolkcom suggested the provision could have a disparate impact on low-income and minority communities and said it is another example of the kinds of policies that have contributed to the anger manifesting in this week’s protests over Floyd’s death.

Republicans took offense, saying they felt he was suggesting it was their intent for the legislation to adversely impact minorities.

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The back-and-forth led to multiple occasions in which Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, brought together bickering lawmakers in an attempt to maintain cooler heads.

“What happened in Minneapolis disgusts me,” Zaun said. “I hope that guy (the police officer charged in Floyd’s death) rots in hell. And it happens way too often.”

Comments: (563) 383-2492; erin.murphy@lee.net

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