Bob Vander Plaats and his wife, Darla, speak about the need for a state medical marijuana program during a media event Wednesday at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines.


DES MOINES — A medical marijuana program would be created in Iowa under a proposal advanced Wednesday by a panel of state lawmakers.

Three Democratic senators approved a measure that would allow private, licensed businesses to grow, harvest, produce and dispense the medicinal cannabis oil found in the marijuana plant. The product could be used to treat the symptoms of certain diseases, including epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others.

The proposal expands a narrow law passed last year that allows Iowa residents to legally possess physician-prescribed medical cannabis oil. That law does not provide an avenue for Iowans to obtain the product, rendering it useless, according to those who would use it.

“Unfortunately, that legislation so far has not helped a single Iowa family,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who has led the charge on medical marijuana legislation in the Iowa Legislature.

Multiple potential patients and advocates spoke in support of the proposal at a hearing Wednesday.

Dr. Frank Caligiuri, a doctor of pharmacy at Drake University and an advocate for medicinal marijuana, presented information that he said he hopes will put at ease concerns raised by opponents of the proposal.

“I’m not sure what more … you would need to be convinced there is a therapeutic value here,” Caligiuri said.

Supporters of a state medical marijuana program will have to sway Republicans who control the Iowa House and Gov. Terry Branstad, who have previously expressed reservations. Branstad has said he does not want to create “unintended consequences.”

Neither of the two Senate Republicans on the subcommittee that discussed the bill Wednesday approved the proposal.

Shelly Van Winkle, a registered nurse from Muscatine, said people who could benefit from the medicinal oil should not be punished because of the actions of those who would abuse it.

“It’s not fair to make people suffer because of those that abuse,” Van Winkle said.

Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent advocate for conservative family issues, on Wednesday stated his support for creating a state medical marijuana program.

Vander Plaats’ 21-year-old son, Lucas, has a rare brain disorder that causes seizures. Vander Plaats said that although medicinal marijuana would not help his son, he knows the destructive impact similar conditions have on families.

Vander Plaats spoke up at the behest of families with loved ones who would benefit from a medicinal marijuana program.

“Last year, we stayed quiet. This year, we believe we need to lend a voice because we see an unnecessary gap (in the current law). There isn’t really access for these parents,” said Vander Plaats, who noted he was speaking on behalf of himself and not the Family Leader, the conservative organization of which he is president and CEO.

No one spoke in opposition to the proposal at the hearing. The Iowa Medical Society is the only organization registered in opposition. The group’s president said marijuana should be reclassified to allow for further studies on the effectiveness of medicinal marijuana.

“While we sympathize with the patients and families who believe marijuana would successfully treat their illnesses, there continues to be a lack of sound clinical data substantiating such a position,” Dr. Jeffrey Maire said. “Iowa physicians have a duty to assure their patients receive the highest quality and safest care. Supporting a program to circumvent the (federal) approval process and grant access to a substance with no clear clinical evidence demonstrating medical efficacy would be reckless and a disservice to our patients.”

Of the 35 states with comprehensive or limited medical marijuana programs, 26 allow for dispensaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.