Medical cannabis expansion alive for now in Iowa Legislature

Measures on abortion and welfare likely dead this year

MedPharm Iowa's Aliviar brand of medical cannabis products at their Manufacturing Facility, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in
MedPharm Iowa's Aliviar brand of medical cannabis products at their Manufacturing Facility, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Des Moines. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)

DES MOINES — A modest expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program was advanced Thursday at the Iowa Capitol, but not without significant concerns that it’s inadequate to help ailing Iowans.

The amended proposal would allow physician assistants and nurse practitioners to identify individuals eligible for the program. But it also would cap the amount of medical cannabis an individual could possess, and maintain a cap on the potency of products.

The restriction was added to gain enough votes to pass the bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and keep it eligible for the remainder of this year’s session, according to Chairman and Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale.

“I didn’t have the votes. Simple as that,” Zaun said. “It’s stricter ... but it still is an expansion of medical cannabis in the state of Iowa.”

Not all legislative proposals fared as well Thursday as lawmakers faced the second deadline for measures to advance. The “funnel” deadline requires a bill be approved by either the House or Senate and a committee in the other chamber to remain viable.

An abortion-related amendment to the Iowa Constitution, work requirements for welfare recipients and a religious freedom bill were among those that didn’t survive.

Although advocates for Iowans with illnesses who could benefit from medical cannabis said the current law is too restrictive to be effective, the Judiciary Committee approved only a modest change. Advocates argued more ailments should be included for coverage and the cap on the product’s potency should be raised or even eliminated.


“I think this is the wrong direction to go,” said Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant. “The (House) bill as it is doesn’t go far enough anyway to really get the help out there that’s needed. But it’s a lot better” than the amended Senate version.

The passage of House File 732 keeps it eligible for consideration for the remainder of the session.

Zaun pledged to continue working on the proposal. He said he favors greater expansion, but was forced to produce a proposal that had enough support to pass ahead of Thursday’s legislative deadline.

“I’m very passionate about it. We haven’t given up on it. I’m happy that we still have something alive that we can continue the conversation,” Zaun said.


Among the funnel week casualties was House Joint Resolution 5 and similar resolutions in the Senate calling for an amendment to the Iowa Constitution saying there is no state right to an abortion or state funding for an abortion.

The resolutions had 16 co-sponsors in the House and 29 in the Senate.

However, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, promised the resolutions will be reintroduced next year.

“There is a strong feeling in the pro-life community that we have to get the wording right,” he said. “It has to meet the legal test, but it also has to be understandable to the voters. So the decision was to slow down, take our time and get that language exactly right.”

The lack of action is “not because I don’t enthusiastically support it. It’s a priority, but it’s a priority we do it right.”

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, pointed out that in 2018 the GOP-led Legislature passed the fetal heartbeat bill that banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, but it was struck down by the courts.


“I think we’re being very thoughtful about what is the next step that will not be undone by the courts,” she said.

Religious freedom

Another funnel victim was a proposal by Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, to adopt language similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act enacted in 21 states.

“Something miraculous could happen yet this year but I’m not holding my breath,” he said, adding he will try again next year. “It’s not abandoned. It’s just put on the shelf for a little while.”

Opponents said Senate File 240 could hurt business, including tourism, because groups such as the NCAA, which recently hosted men’s and women’s basketball tournament games in Iowa, would blacklist Iowa.

Guth called that “a lot for bluff and not a lot of bite” because “over 40 percent of states the NCAA is going to in the next three years have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Death penalty

Some bills died from active opposition, but Senate File 296 to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa succumbed because “nothing happened,” said Sen. Jason Schultz, R-Schleswig.

“There was no huge controversy. It was just decided that’s as far as the support would be and nothing happened, so it’s just going to be allowed to go,” Schultz said. “I was told ‘Well, we’ll talk about it, we’ll talk about it’ and then I eventually I was told we’re not going to do it this year.”

Work requirements

Schultz also pushed work requirements for welfare recipients, but “that looks to me like I’m going to have to put together either some presentations or some meetings over the interim and talk to leaders” in the House. he said.

The House declined to take up Senate File 538. Despite the setback, he was philosophical.

“I get enough of what I really, really support that I cannot complain about the things that I don’t,” he said. “I’m ahead and I’m very, very happy with the Senate Republican majority over here so I’m not going to make waves over a few individual bills if I still get the chance to work on them.”

Animal Cruelty

A proposal to strengthen state animal cruelty laws passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and thus remained eligible.

But some lawmakers who voted for the bill in committee said they did so with hesitation and the understanding it will be altered in the future.


The proposal would make animal torture a felony on first offense and lower the legal standard for a torture conviction, among myriad other provisions.

House File 737 passed the Iowa House on a unanimous, 96-0 vote. The Senate’s judiciary committee passed it, 12-2, but even some who voted for it said they feel it must be amended.

Iowa’s animal protection laws are ranked 48th in the country by a leading animal welfare organization.

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