Staff Columnist

Three marijuana bills survive first funnel deadline in Iowa Legislature

Cannabis plants grow inside the mother room at MedPharm Iowa in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jul. 24, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Cannabis plants grow inside the mother room at MedPharm Iowa in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jul. 24, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Several important measures to modernize Iowa’s marijuana laws have cleared the first major hurdle of the legislative session.

Lawmakers have introduced at least dozen bills this session related to marijuana, medical cannabis and industrial hemp. With last week’s legislative funnel — the deadline for bills to earn initial committee approval before the stock of proposals is whittled down — several promising pieces of legislation remain alive.

These bills are overdue in a state with some of the worst prohibition laws in the nation. Marijuana possession remains a jailable offense, and there is no real medical cannabis program, as most states now have.

The medical cannabidiol law approved in 2017 doesn’t cover enough medical conditions, heavily restricts available products and caps the number of dispensaries in the state at five. The number of patients and caregivers with cannabidiol registration cards is growing, but there are fewer than 2,000 statewide at last count.

Politicians are far behind the populace on this issue, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll last month. It found an overwhelming 78 percent of Iowans want the state government to expand the program, to include more medical conditions and authorize more dispensaries.

Convincing lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, about the necessity of drug reform has been a slow process, but the last several weeks in Des Moines provided ample evidence that pressure from patients and activists is working.

Bills to expand access to medical cannabis have earned committee approval in the House and the Senate, making them eligible for further consideration. Both bills earned broad bipartisan support in their committees, and either would be an improvement over the current system.

The House version would replace the 3 percent THC limit with a 20 gram limit per 90-day period, give some medical professionals besides doctors the authority to certify patients and direct the Department of Public Health to collect and evaluate data about the cannabidiol program.

The Senate version goes further, covering any condition that a health care provider determines would benefit from cannabidiol, and asserting the program is not subject to federal regulation.

Another bill approved by a Senate committee would reduce first-offense possession of up to five grams of marijuana to a simple misdemeanor. That would be a good step toward reasonable drug enforcement policy.

The recent Iowa Poll showed Iowans are coming around to the idea of recreational marijuana — 48 percent favor it, 48 percent oppose it and 4 percent aren’t sure. That’s a significant change from a year ago, when the Iowa Poll reported 39 percent support and 58 percent opposition.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, put forth a sensible plan for legal and regulated marijuana, but it did not advance out of a committee before the funnel deadline. Lawmakers introduced several other good bills that unfortunately appear to be dead for now.

They would further reduce possession charges, reduce some marijuana delivery charges to a serious misdemeanor, specify that cannabis plants with a very low THC content are not defined as marijuana and cover more than a dozen new conditions in the medical marijuana program.

The bills still alive would be small progress, and even those could still be watered down, if they advance at all. We are reminded that some lawmakers still have deep-seated reservations about drug reform.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, voted against an amendment last week to include the language about not being subject to federal regulation. Even though he supports medical cannabis and ultimately voted to advance the bill, Hogg told me Iowa shouldn’t purport to defy federal regulatory authority because “that was settled in the Civil War.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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