House Republicans discuss expanding Iowa medical cannabis law

'People have to get comfortable with what we're trying to do to get this right. It's a big change. We're trying to grow and sell marijuana in our state.'

Iowa’s Medical Cannabidiol Act that became law in July 2014 allowed the use of cannabidiol, or CBD, shown here, to treat intractable epilepsy. (News 21 photo courtesy of IowaWatch)

DES MOINES — Republican state lawmakers spent hours Wednesday night discussing a proposal to expand Iowa’s limited medical cannabis law, but party leaders on Thursday gave little indication as to whether the proposal will receive further consideration this year.

And a key Democratic legislator said that even if Republicans approve their bill, Democrats in the Senate will alter it to more closely match theirs, making full legislative approval even more challenging this session.

In a closed-door meeting Wednesday night, Republican members of the Iowa House discussed a proposal from one of their members to permit the production and dispensation of cannabidiol, an oil byproduct of the marijuana plant that has been found in many cases to reduce seizures caused by ailments such as epilepsy.

On the heels of that discussion, House Republican leaders said Thursday they have not determined whether the proposal will receive further consideration this year.

“We’re having a good discussion about it, and I don’t think we’ve reached an outcome,” said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake. When asked whether the proposal will get another hearing this year, Upmeyer said, “I don’t know the answer to that today.”

And when asked what would lead her to advance the proposal or deem it unfit for passage, Upmeyer said “consensus” among House Republicans. She and Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, declined to elaborate further.

“There’s not a mathematical formula for that,” Hagenow said. “It will come as no surprise that we have a wide range of opinions on the matter. It’s very healthy for us to talk through that, resolve questions and interact with each other. That’s how we work. We’re collaborative, and we’ll continue to have those conversations.”

Those who would use cannabidiol to treat themselves or their children say Iowa’s current law is largely useless. Iowans may possess cannabidiol and use it to treat people who suffer from epileptic seizures, but they must acquire the product from other states, with few out-of-state venors selling to non-residents.

Twenty-three states have medical cannabis programs similar to the ones being proposed in Iowa, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rep. Peter Cownie, R-West Des Moines, who authored the House proposal, said he remains hopeful something will get done this year.

“The deal with the bill, and the issue, as I’ve said all along, is it’s going to take good education and good advocacy to get this done,” Cownie said. “People have to get comfortable with what we’re trying to do to get this right. It’s a big change. We’re trying to grow and sell marijuana in our state.”

Even if the House eventually approves its medical cannabis proposal, it will be met with a swift edit, said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who has overseen legislation on the issue in the Senate. The Senate Democrats’ proposal allows for more dispensaries and covers more ailments.

“If we’re going to have a medical cannabis program, let’s have one that works for our people that need our help,” Bolkcom said. “I’m of a mind that if we’re going to go through the motions of this, we ought to have a program we can be proud of and a program that would work for the thousands of people that are going to benefit, rather than this really weak half-step.”

Cownie said he disputes the suggestion his bill is not a good step forward.

“Right now, we can’t grow (marijuana for medicinal purposes) in this state. The bill we have before us allows this to be grown within our borders. That’s a lot of progress for this issue of health for all these children and Iowans that need help,” Cownie said. “I reject the premise that this isn’t good progress.”