MUSCATINE, Iowa — Families with sick children have been flocking to Colorado, where medical marijuana use has been legal since 2000 and recreational marijuana use became legal for adults as of Jan. 1. Some parents say a genetically produced strain of marijuana in that state, called Charlotte’s Web, has helped reduce the number of seizures in children with epilepsy.
However, Iowa families will have to wait at least another year for a chance to legalize medical marijuana in Iowa, as the legislature declared the issue dead for the session earlier this month.
Despite the unanimous endorsement by the Iowa Board of Pharmacy in 2010 to legalize medical marijuana, Senate File 2215 didn’t even make it onto the floor for discussion this session.
“I’m not on the committee that worked on that,” said Rep. Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine. “There’s a big difference between recreational and medical use, but it doesn’t surprise me [the bill didn’t] go any further. Just through conversation over the years, it just doesn’t seem that Iowa is supportive of passing that. It never even got to the floor itself.”
Lofgren said that many times a lawmaker will submit a bill for consideration knowing it won’t pass. However, submitting the bill at least puts the topic on the table and raises the discussion.
Senate File 2215 proposed making medical marijuana legal for controlling symptoms of debilitating health conditions such as epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis and other diseases which result in muscle spasticity.
Instead of smoking the marijuana, oil from marijuana is extracted and ingested. Medical marijuana contains very low levels of THC, thereby keeping patients from getting high.
In the case of Charlotte's Web, the strain was named after Charlotte Figi, a 7-year-old girl in Colorado who suffered from seizures as frequently as 300 times a week until she was treated with medical marijuana at the Realm of Caring Foundation. Now she is reported as having only three to four seizures per month.
Opponents of medical marijuana caution that there's is no medically supported evidence behind the values of marijuana, which is still considered a Schedule 1 drug in the federal Controlled Substances Act, along with other drugs such as heroin and peyote. Medical marijuana also lacks an FDA approval.
In 2013, when a similar bill was introduced — and ultimately failed — in the Iowa Legislature, the Governor’s Office of Drug Control weighed in on the issue. In a story published at the time by KWWL-TV, a spokesman for the office said even discussing the possibility of legalizing marijuana can be harmful.
"We spend a lot of time trying to educate our youth that drugs are harmful, and they're not healthy life choices, and they can have some real long-term consequences," said Steven Lukan, Director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control. "When policy makers and people of authority start talking about legalization, it really sends a mixed message.”
On the other hand, there is no medical evidence yet that says that the lower levels of THC in medical marijuana are dangerous to children long-term.
"There's a lot of concerns because the thought of medical marijuana is new, like any medical treatment when it first comes out," said Sen. Chris Brase, D-Muscatine, who expects the issue to resurface next session. "I was kind of disappointed there wasn't more discussion on it, in all honesty, but we need to focus on the facts. It's something we should be more educated about."
“It depends on how people view marijuana. Medical marijuana is a very specific strain of genetically engineered marijuana that doesn’t get people high,” said Paula Levasseur, director of Trinity New Horizons in Muscatine. “But it gives them these other effects that help them medically. We don’t have an issue on that.”
Levasseur said that while they don’t have a problem with legalizing medical strains of marijuana, it should not be used as a stepping stone to legalize recreational marijuana.
But it doesn’t look like lawmakers have any plans yet to legalize any sort of cannabis right now.
“Medical cannabis will not happen in Iowa without bipartisan support,” said democrat Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City in his press release Feb. 18. Bolkcom, who introduced the bill.
“The simple truth is that no Republican lawmaker was willing to sign onto legislation that would give Iowans access to medicines used in 20 other states," said Bolkcom. "Already, Iowans are moving out of state so they can get the medicines they need for themselves and their families. That’s sad to see but very understandable.”
One of Iowa's neighbors, Illinois, passed a medical marijuana law that went into effect on Jan. 1.
As more states are legalizing medical marijuana, Iowa is sure to revisit the issue in the future.
“You never know what the future will bear,” said Lofgren.