The last-minute medical marijuana compromise in the final hours of the 2017 Iowa Legislature put some lawmakers in a peculiar position.
On one side, we saw old, conservative lawmakers voting for a bill to expand medical marijuana access. On the other side, there were several longtime marijuana supporters who voted against the bill.
As advocates for marijuana reform have digested the details of the legislation over the past two weeks, many have concluded the bill is too weak and wondered if it’s better than nothing at all.
“I’m not convinced the last-minute medical cannabis bill was better than doing nothing. If lawmakers had allowed the current unworkable law to expire, they would face tremendous pressure to do something on medical cannabis during next year’s session,” wrote Laura Belin, an Iowa blogger and Democrat activist.
The major sticking point for critics is that the bill limits products to a very small amount of THC, one of the active compounds in marijuana that many advocates say is crucial for treatment.
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, was one of the Democrats who voted against the final version of the bill because it wasn’t strong enough. Bolkcom, my own state senator, said the legislation “really doesn’t answer the needs of so many people who suffer in our state.”
“This bill provides false hope. … This is going to take a couple years to put in place and by the time that happens, people will sign up for the program and then realize that because we’re not allowing for the whole plant to be available, that eight of nine conditions in the bill will not have a therapeutic medicine to alleviate the pain that people suffer from,” Bolkcom said in a video posted online shortly after the bill passed.
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I agree that the bill doesn’t go far enough, but Bolkcom and Democrat detractors are wrong to downplay its significance.
It is remarkable and unprecedented for a Republican legislative majority in our state to actively support a proposal to manufacture and distribute cannabis products. That was a laughable prospect five years ago and a long shot even a few months ago.
Republicans, now home on their annual recess, will find that their constituents overwhelmingly support access to medical marijuana. 80 percent of Iowans and 66 percent of Iowa Republicans support legalizing medical marijuana, according to a Des Moines Register poll published in February.
Because of Iowa’s bipartisan 2017 law, medical marijuana will soon be an industry in Iowa — a small and heavily regulated industry, but an industry nonetheless. And industries with high demand tend to grow, not shrink. By the time the 2018 session begins, there will be tangible economic interests tied to medical marijuana.
That makes it difficult to imagine a political scenario where medical marijuana would be re-restricted in the foreseeable future, but easy to see a legislative path toward expanding access once again next year.
The last-minute approval of this bill demonstrated that citizen advocacy can make a real impact. A week before the legislature adjourned, the media reported that any significant marijuana bill would be a non-starter with the Republican leadership in the House. But representatives demanded action, because their constituents were demanding action, and ultimately an important bill was passed.
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