DES MOINES — Iowans would be protected from prosecution for possessing a specific type of medical marijuana under legislation headed to the Senate floor.

That the bill passed through two committees Wednesday was remarkable  for legislation considered dead several times this session only to be reworked and relobbied as the Legislature went into overtime this week.

“Why is it so important to pass this legislation now? First and foremost, because Iowans are suffering right now and medical cannabis can help them,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. “That’s why 20 other states have already legalized medical cannabis.”

The bill gives prosecutorial immunity to people who possess cannabidiol, a low-THC, non-smokable oil extract of marijuana used to treat seizures. Patients or their caregivers must obtain a state-issued license to possess the drug and must have a neurologist’s prescription in order to obtain the license.

“This is huge for us,” said Sally Gaer, whose 24-year-old daughter suffers from seizures for which she takes four different anticonvulsant medications, none of which is completely effective.

Gaer is the wife of Republican West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer, whose support for the legislation was seen as key in getting it heard in the Republican caucus. But advocates also benefited from the persistence of a group of parents who made almost daily trips to the Capitol to bend lawmakers’ ears about what was at stake for their families.

Blank Children’s Hospital representative Chaney Yeast said the organization is opposed to the bill because cannabis oil is not approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration.

Sen. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, was one of four votes against the bill when it came to the full committee. He was concerned about the lack of FDA approval and potential long-term effects of cannabis oil use.

Sens. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, Jerry Behn, R-Boone and Jake Chapman, R-Adel, were the other “no” votes. 

“I just want to point out that people who are seeking access also are aware of these risks,” said Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, “because everything they’ve tired so far hasn’t worked.”

Steve Lukan, who heads the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said the office officially is neutral on the bill but added he had concerns about how the process would work because it requires Iowans to travel to other states to obtain the oil and the state has no ability for quality control in those other jurisdictions.

Bolkcom said it’s a necessary part of the legislation because it’s illegal to produce the oil in Iowa.

“Without reciprocity, people would have no access,” he said, adding the bill may get a hearing as early as today on the Senate floor.

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