DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate on Thursday approved a narrow opening for Iowa parents with children suffering from severe epilepsy to be able to access cannabis oil as a treatment option.
After an emotion-charged debate, senators voted 36-12 to pass Senate File 2360, a bill that legalizes the possession and medical use under certain conditions of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of marijuana that backers say possesses a wide range of therapeutic benefits. Ten Republicans joined 26 Democrats in passing the bill.
“The oil that we are talking about does not produce a high,” said Sen. Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines. “The bill we put together will not open the door for recreational use.”
The measure, which now goes to the Iowa House for consideration, would give prosecutorial immunity to people who possess cannabidiol, a non-smokable oil extract of marijuana with a low THC level to treat seizures. It would require patients or their caregivers to obtain a state-issued registration card to possess the drug and to have a neurologist’s recommendation to obtain the license. The act will sunset on July 1, 2017.
Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan, said she was concerned that young people who read headlines that Iowa was legalizing a marijuana derivative would get the wrong impression. Others expressed concern over the lack of FDA approval and potential long-term effects of cannabis oil use.
“We are sending a message whether we like it or not that marijuana is OK,” said Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, who voted for the bill. “It is a gateway drug, and I hope the young people understand that.”
Only permanent Iowa residents at least 18 years of age can possess the drug with a written recommendation from a neurologist and registration card for the medical treatment of “intractable” epilepsy. No other medical conditions are eligible.
Primary caregivers — including parents, hospice employees and community-based health care service providers — also are authorized to possess and administer the use of cannabidiol on behalf of a patient, including those under 18 years of age.
“We’re opening a gate here, and we need to come to grips with that,” said Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, a father of three who voted against the bill.
He has struggled with the issue and wondered if lawmakers next session would be asked to expand access to people dealing with cancer or other painful, chronic conditions.
“I think this is right,” said Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, a deputy county sheriff who noted that he regularly busts people for illegal drug use.
Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said the legislation was an effort to give “hope and help” to parents who have spent hours lobbying legislators to allow them access to a derivative oil strictly for medical use in caring for their children.
“We have an opportunity to do something here today that’s pretty special, and I want to thank the mothers for coming before us and having the courage to stand up when people were saying no," he said. "This is unacceptable. We need to move forward.”
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, expressed concern that marijuana and its derivatives are illegal under federal drug policy, and even though Iowa is granting immunity, parents seeking the cannabis oil would have to cross through states where cannabidiol is not legal and face arrest on federal charges.
“I think we’re giving a false sense of security to these folks,” she said.
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said the issuing of legalizing any medicinal form of marijuana started the 2014 legislative session but evolved into a serious issue thanks to the passionate work of parents and the compassion of lawmakers willing to join 20 other states that provide access to cannabidiol.
After the Senate vote, the ACLU of Iowa sent an alert to its members calling passage of Senate File 2360 “a remarkable demonstration of the power of a mother’s love.”
Gov. Terry Branstad said he has talked with the governor of Utah, who recently joined Alabama and Wisconsin in approving similar measures, and his staff worked with lawmakers “to make sure that it is very limited and very focused on children with epilepsy.”
That said, however, the governor said, he will “reserve judgment” until he’s seen the cannabis oil bill in its final form when it reaches his desk.
“I met with the parents, and I do have empathy for the families, but I have concerns. I don’t want unintended consequences of this getting into the hands of people who shouldn’t have it or it’s not prescribed for,” he said.
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller took a cautious approach to Thursday’s legislative action.
“I always talk about states being laboratories of democracy,” he said. "States can experiment, do different things, and as states do that, other states can look and see and see if things work and see if they don’t work and learn lessons either way.
“I’ve learned an enormous lesson on medical marijuana. So many states where that has happened, it has been done in such a way that it is quasi-legalization of marijuana.”
He recalled seeing a medical marijuana clinic in Santa Monica where a person could get diagnosed and get medical marijuana.
“It was a joke,” Miller said.
“Generally, I’m very opposed to medical marijuana. I would be willing to think about a system, a situation, that is very directed at people who are in grave need and have extraordinary provisions they cannot do the tricks that happen in California and other states,” the attorney general said. “It looks like they are trying to do this in the Senate. We’ll continue to monitor it and probably won’t take a position unless there is an open door, and then we will be very quick to be opposed.”
(James Q. Lynch contributed to this story.)