Staff Columnist

First look at 2019 marijuana bills in the Iowa Legislature

Lucas Nelson general manager of MedPharm Iowa shows a slide from their first harvest during an event at their manufacturing facility, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Des Moines. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)
Lucas Nelson general manager of MedPharm Iowa shows a slide from their first harvest during an event at their manufacturing facility, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, in Des Moines. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)

Could 2019 finally be the year for meaningful marijuana reform?

In the two years since the Legislature approved a law allowing for medical cannabis production and distribution, legislative leaders have resisted efforts to expand the program, instead choosing to see how their existing heavy-handed regulations work out.

Meanwhile, almost half the states in the country, representing a majority of all Americans, have legalized recreational marijuana or decriminalized possession of small amounts. That includes our neighbors in Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska. Iowa remains one of the states still threatening steep charges, including large fines and possible jail sentences.

Iowa remains one of the states still threatening steep charges, including large fines and possible jail sentences.

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Some Iowa politicians are not content to wait. In just two weeks since the 2019 legislative season commenced, lawmakers have introduced at least eight bills related to marijuana. Most seek to improve the medical cannabis program, while a few others target the nonsensically harsh criminal penalties in the Iowa Code.

Sen. Tom Greene, R-Burlington, is pitching a full replacement of the current medical cannabis law. His bill, dubbed the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Act, would be a significant improvement, authorizing more treatment methods, reciprocity for other states’ patients, and more than doubling the number of licensed dispensaries around the state. That last point is particularly important for those of us in Johnson and Linn Counties, as none of the existing five dispensaries are here in Iowa’s second most-populous corridor.

A group of Senate Democrats wants to allow primary caregivers to administer cannabidiol at school to students who are licensed to use the treatment. There’s a Republican proposal in the House to affirm the chamber’s support for medical research, and one in the Senate to adjust the overly restrictive 3 percent cap on tetrahydrocannabinol in medical products.

In a rare bipartisan filing, Sens. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, and Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, propose amending the law to include any medical condition for which a health care practitioner determines a patient would benefit from cannabis therapy. Currently, fewer than a dozen ailments are covered by the program.

On the criminal justice front, the most ambitious bill, sponsored by five House Democrats, would make possession of up to 42.5 grams of marijuana a civil penalty, carrying a $25 fine. A separate bill would strike the possibility of imprisonment for possession, and also reduce intent to deliver from a felony to a serious misdemeanor.

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Another proposal from Zaun may have better prospects this year. His bill would make possession of up to five grams a simple misdemeanor, rather than a serious misdemeanor. Analysis of a similar bill last year found it would save the state $150,000 annually, with additional savings to local governments.

Lawmakers should see in last November’s election results that there was no backlash against their 2017 medical cannabis votes. Polls have shown Americans are steadily warming up to sensible marijuana laws. If legislators don’t act, they may soon pay a political price for their inaction.

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

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