DES MOINES — Members of a Senate committee voted Thursday to establish a comprehensive medical cannabis program for Iowans seeking relief from debilitating diseases and conditions that proponents say builds in safeguards to keep it from ushering in legalized use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

“This is a very important bill,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, prior to a 9-5 vote by the Senate Ways and Means Committee that would authorize the production and dispensing of medical cannabis for expanded uses and medical conditions. “People’s lives, I believe, are at stake, and their health and well-being is at stake.”

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said Iowa enacted a law last year that legalized the possession and use of up to 32 ounces of cannabidiol for the sole purpose of treating intractable epilespsy and its side effects for people under a physician’s care who acquired an approved cannabidiol registration card.

“Unfortunately, the legislation has not helped a single Iowa family,” Bolkcom said of a system that has proved to be unworkable for acquiring the oil from out-of-state sources.

To address the deficiencies of Iowa’s approach, committee members approved Senate Study Bill 1243, a measure modeled after 23 states with comprehensive medical cannabis programs that would legalize multiple forms of cannabis for the treatment of multiple medical conditions and provide for local acquisition of cannabis. The bill would prohibit the smoking of medical cannabis products.

The bill seeks to establish a Medical Advisory Board to provide oversight of the program and consider conditions that would be eligible for medical cannabis. The proposal also authorize for medical cannabis producers and 12 independent dispensaries with a fee and licensing system for the various participants that would fund state oversight efforts. Iowans with a doctor's recommendation would pay up to $100 for a state-issued medical marijuana license that would enable them to buy products made from the marijuana plant.

The bill was greeted with appreciation from Iowans suffering from various maladies who packed the committee room. There was bipartisan reluctance from panel members and flat-out opposition from Republicans who control the Iowa House.

“I don’t believe that the General Assembly will do anything with medical marijuana this year,” House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, told reporters during GOP leaders’ weekly news conference.

That position was not received well by Madena Burman, 44, a DeSoto woman with a rare genetic disease that causes colon cancer who made her first trek to the Statehouse to attend Thursday’s committee meeting.

“I guess if their life was on the line, they might have a different opinion,” Burman said. “I would like to see them become advocates before it affects their own lives. I have a problem with someone else’s fear overriding my choice for my life and my body.”

Bolkcom said that “a year ago at this time, nobody thought we were going to get a bill passed, and we got a bill passed. I think there’s a lot of tenacity in the patients that are the leaders of this effort to work as hard as they can to make sure that the House takes this up.”

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, a Ways and Means Committee member, said he was “very reluctant to make this step today” because he did want the proposal to “become a stalking horse” for recreational marijuana use. He said, however, the bill contained enough safeguards to advance it as a workable “option for people who are truly sick.”

Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, said he was not ready Thursday to vote for the bill he called “very charged,” but he added that he thinks changes being made were moving the measure “in the correct direction.”

Gov. Terry Branstad, who participated in an Iowa Epilepsy Foundation event at the Statehouse Thursday, said there is caution on the part of medical community and law enforcement given the experience in Colorado where marijuana access has opened up.

“We want to make sure that what we approved last year gets the medicine to the people who need it without creating unintended consequences,” he said.

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