Playing doctor at the Capitol

( REUTERS/Rick Wilking)
( REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

This is what happens when the Legislature plays doctor.

Lawmakers approved a bill that, on the surface, looked like it allowed families to use oil extracted from marijuana to treat kids with a severe form of epilepsy. It was hailed as a big step forward for folks hoping to use marijuana for medical purposes. I, too, welcomed its passage.

Now, it turns out the law is deeply flawed. It doesn’t allow for the manufacture or sale of the oil in Iowa, and most states that permit its sale don’t let out-of-state residents buy it. So, Iowa’s law allows families to use a treatment they can’t obtain. Too often the Statehouse is a machine that turns good ideas into perplexing puzzles with many missing pieces. In this case, it was pressure from skittish adherents to drug war thinking who took the idea of allowing sick people to get doctor-approved marijuana and sliced it into a hyper-narrow, unworkable law.

Some lawmakers seem to understand this. A panel of legislators reviewing the law voted 6-4 to recommend allowing limited production and distribution of marijuana-derived oil. It also voted 9-1 for the idea of moving marijuana from the list of Schedule I controlled substances, which includes heroin and other illegal drugs, to Schedule II, where some medical use is permitted.

But from a practical standpoint, these votes are for show. The panel has no authority. It would take the full Legislature and a governor’s signature to change the law. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, told The Des Moines Register that he doubts the House will take up a bill expanding the law. He said Republicans want to see how the present law works. That’s the law that doesn’t work.

And, of course, that legislative panel voted against recommending that lawmakers allow people with other painful, chronic conditions to access marijuana.

Apparently, they like what happened to Benton Mackenzie, 48, a man dying of a rare form of cancer who was convicted in Scott County of growing marijuana to obtain oil to treat his symptoms. At trial, Judge Henry Latham refused to allow Mackenzie to tell the jury about his illness.

Last week, Latham gave Mackenzie and his family probation instead of jail time. But Mackenzie is uncertain if he’ll be allowed to live out his days in Oregon, where medical marijuana is legal.

So, on this issue, our government lacks brains, guts and heart.

Politicians need to get out of the way and allow medical professionals to put together a reasonable, regulated medical marijuana program in Iowa that puts doctors in charge of deciding how to help sick people. New Mexico and several other states have done it. And it doesn’t have to lead to recreational legalization or any other scary slippery slopes conjured up by drug warriors.

We give doctors the ability to prescribe all sorts of medicines and treatments far more risky, potent and addictive than marijuana. So if it helps suffering people, and a doctor prescribes it, why on earth would any lawmaker or governor believe they should stand in the way?

You got me. And yet, here we are, with sick people hoping against hope for a prescription from old Doc Legislature.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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