DES MOINES — One by one they stepped forward through the chilly mist to tell their stories. Some did not make it more than a few seconds before breaking down in tears.
Then, together they marched to the governor’s office to show a unified message: Allow access to medical cannabis oil.
More than 50 Iowans marched at the State Capitol on Tuesday to express their support for a new law that would permit a medical marijuana program.
Legislation being considered in the Iowa Senate would allow for the creation and dispensing in Iowa of the medical cannabis oil found in the marijuana plant. Key state lawmakers said the Senate may debate and vote on the bill this week.
Supporters of a medical marijuana program say the cannabis oil helps patients of certain diseases manage their pain, from the disease itself or the side effects of potent medications.
One such supporter is Amber Balek-Lenius, of Mason City, who said she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, an inherited disorder that affects primarily the skin, joints and blood vessel walls. There is no cure for the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Balek-Lenius said she has been given about 20 years to live. She said the medical cannabis oil cannot cure her disease, but it could ease her suffering.
She implored state legislators to approve the medical cannabis program so her children’s memories of her will not be of her constantly in pain.
She marched Tuesday with her two young daughters: Eden, 6, and Norah, 2. While Norah rode in a stroller, Eden carried a sign that said, “My mom deserves safe medicine!”
“It would help the pain, make the rest of my life more tolerable,” Balek-Lenius said.
Gena Pickett, of Des Moines, almost immediately became emotional when talking about her 26-year-old son, Griffin, who has suffered from seizures since he was 6 months old.
Several veterans spoke about the need for medical cannabis to treat symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“We have to break down the stereotypes; we have to break down the stigma, and we have to make this happen in Iowa, for Iowans,” said Sherry Van Winkle, a registered nurse from Muscatine.
Iowa Rep. Timi Brown-Powers, a Democrat from Waterloo, wiped away tears as the advocates testified. She was among the group of state legislators that came outside to join the march.
“I take care of these people, and I know the pain that they’re in. And I know that we could fix it just that easy,” said Brown-Powers, who works as a therapist at Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo. “I just think the stigma is the problem, is the barrier. And if people would just open their minds and educate themselves, this is not a complex problem, and you could help hundreds and hundreds of Iowans.
“So when I hear their stories … it’s very emotional for me, because I know we could solve it.”
Iowa Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said he expects the bill will pass the Democrat-controlled Iowa Senate. Dotzler supports the legislation, often telling of a Cedar Valley-area family that moved to Colorado so they could treat their child with medical cannabis oil.
“We’ve tried to get input from everybody to try to make this thing so it’s water tight,” Dotzler said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “You don’t want to have some unintended consequence with drugs being out in our community.”
At the same time, Dotzler noted time is of the essence for patients who likely would have to wait at least another year for a program to start in Iowa, if the split-control Legislature was able to get something to Gov. Terry Branstad that he could sign.
“These patients can’t necessarily wait,” Dotzler said. “They have chronic diseases that can take their lives, and they’re slowly dying. We can help these people today by getting it started.”
Leadership in the Republican-controlled Iowa House has said it is unlikely to take up any legislation that expands Iowa’s medical marijuana program, and Branstad has expressed reservations over approving any program that potentially could yield “unforeseen circumstances.”
The state in 2014 signed into law a measure that allows Iowans to legally possess physician-prescribed medical cannabis oil for the treatment of patients with epileptic seizures. But those who would use the program say that law is useless because it provides no means for patients to obtain the oil.
Other states that have a medical cannabis oil program produce it only for their residents, and it is against federal law to transport the product across state lines.