Tina and Ryan McDermott

Tina McDermott watches her son, Ryan, 7, roll over on to his back in the living room of their Davenport home. McDermott is advocating for medical marijuana to treat her son for Dravet syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy.


Ryan McDermott wiggles on the living room floor as he flips onto his back.

The Davenport boy suffers an endless assault of seizures that have rendered his 7-year-old body nearly paralyzed.

Wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and sneakers, he looks up at his mother, Tina McDermott, and gives her a big smile, as if to say “I love you.” He can’t communicate it with words.

Her eyes sad, she rests her chin in her palm, her elbow pressing on her jeans.

“I know he’s in there,” she said.

On her arm is a rubber bracelet that says “Pediatric Cannabis Therapy” even though she’s never used marijuana.

She’s eager to explore marijuana, which Iowa outlaws for any use, because she suspects the side effects of Ryan’s prescription pills may be aggravating his condition.

McDermott shared her story with the Quad-City Times, along with other parents with children suffering severe forms of epilepsy. The Times also found veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and people suffering other diseases like multiple sclerosis and bipolar disorder.

They’re the faces of Iowa supporting the legalization of medical marijuana in 20 states, including Illinois, which is formulating its dispensary system now.

Some Iowans who spoke with the Times admitted they’re using marijuana illegally because they think they have no other option.

Logan Edwards, a retired U.S. Marine living in Davenport, opened up his backpack and pulled out a handful of pill bottles, saying that at one time doctors had him on 18 different prescriptions. Nothing controlled his depression and anxiety until he started inhaling marijuana vapors.

“I’m an outlaw in a country I fought for,” Edwards said.

Iowa law, like federal law, says marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use.”

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance. That puts it in the same category as heroin and LSD and ahead of methamphetamine and cocaine in its potential for abuse.

Iowa Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, says he will introduce legislation in 2014 reclassifying marijuana as a drug with medical benefits.

Iowa drug enforcers say the data from Colorado, which has had legal medical marijuana since 2000, gives them reason to be skeptical.

The DEA-funded Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area study found that traffic fatalities involving drivers testing positive for marijuana increased 114 percent from 2008 to 2011, while overall traffic fatalities decreased 16 percent in the same period.

The study also found marijuana use increased among middle and high school students, with one high school district, Boulder County, reporting marijuana use more than three times the national rate.

“I don’t want my children growing up thinking marijuana is medicine,” Kevin Winslow, director of the Quad-Cities Metropolitan Enforcement Group, said. “It’s not. It’s a recreational drug.”

His agents have seized truck-loads of marijuana on the interstate, usually from traffickers heading east from such states as Colorado and California. He said traffickers can up the price three or four times on the black market in Iowa if they call it “medical.”

“These people normally have nothing to do with people that are sick,” he said.

Winslow attended a meeting on medical marijuana in Des Moines earlier this month to learn more about the issue. He also researched the list of ailments in Illinois medical cannabis laws.

He said he hadn’t heard of a lot of the conditions, including Dystonia, Hydromyelia and Tarlov cysts.

“I hope law enforcement will be responsible in its view of those who are gravely ill,” Winslow said. “I won’t throw a sick person in jail.”

Steve Lukan, director of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy, said he won’t support a change to Iowa’s drug laws until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves marijuana for medical use.

“At this point in time, Iowa is best served to see what the FDA does,” Lukan said, referring to FDA-approved research on Epidiolex, a cannabis extract, to treat epilepsy in children.

Lukan said his office has received numerous calls on the legalization issue, and his heart goes out to anyone suffering illness. But he isn’t convinced marijuana, which he said he considers as harmful as crack cocaine and methamphetamine, is a cure.

“People are misled to think this is the new miracle drug,” Lukan said.

With laws limiting research on marijuana’s medical benefits, a lot of the evidence is anecdotal.

Dr. Steve Jenison, an Ames, Iowa, native who served as the first director of New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, has seen positive results in a state that after decriminalization saw PTSD sufferers make up 46 percent of patients registering for marijuana.

“We shouldn’t be arresting and prosecuting them,” Jenison said.