DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Terry Branstad's suggestion that Iowa residents could one day head to neighboring Illinois to buy cannabis oil has major legislative roadblocks if it's ever seriously considered, according to people following the industry who say it highlights the dilemma for states that allow some medical marijuana without a clear path to access it.
At a news conference this month, Branstad said he was open to working with Illinois officials so Iowa residents could visit that state to purchase cannabis oil for the treatment of severe epilepsy. He noted a dispensary was planned in the Quad Cities area, just over the Mississippi River.
"This is an area that I think we need to be very thoughtful and very careful about," he told reporters. "We want to do what we can to try to help the families, but we don't want to create a lot of unintended consequences."
At least one Illinois lawmaker involved with passing that state's medical marijuana law said it's unrealistic.
"Not plausible at all. Probably will never be proposed," said Rep. Lou Lang, a Democrat from Skokie. "The governor of Iowa is talking nonsense."
Branstad's spokesman, Jimmy Centers, didn't respond to Lang's comment but said Branstad wants to meet with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to talk about the idea while both men are attending meetings in Washington.
"The governor wants to explore opportunities and reasonable solutions with neighboring states that would allow those suffering from severe epilepsy to obtain the cannabis oil," Centers said in an email.
Catherine Kelly, Rauner's press secretary, did not answer questions about Branstad's remarks, but released a statement saying, "The governor will carefully review and consider any proposals regarding the medical marijuana program that cross his desk. He has always said he wants to make sure the law is followed, and the safety and well-being of the people of Illinois are protected."
Illinois approved legislation in 2013 to create a pilot program for the production and distribution of medical marijuana. The law specifies that only registered Illinois residents can access it, meaning Illinois law would need to be changed.
Lang, who authored Illinois' medical marijuana bill and pushed it for years before it got enough support, said he's already having trouble extending the pilot program past 2017, when it expires. He certainly doesn't see support for making changes like allowing out-of-state residents to buy the product.
Branstad signed a bill into law last year that allows some residents with epilepsy to use oil with an ingredient derived from marijuana for treatment. The oil has little of the ingredient in marijuana known to give people a "high."
The law did not establish an in-state program for the production and distribution of the oil, which critics say makes it useless.
Even if Iowa residents could buy the oil in Illinois, they would have to stay there to consume it; federal law categorizes all forms of marijuana as a drug with no medicinal purposes and prohibits its transportation across state lines. Depending on where an Iowa resident lives, they could face a long commute into Illinois.
"It would be one thing I suppose if every sick person in Iowa lived in Davenport. It'd take them three minutes to get to Illinois," Lang said. "But what about the people in the western portion of Iowa?"
There are more than 20 states that allow medical marijuana use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Iowa is among about a dozen states that approved limited medical marijuana laws in 2014 that in many cases allow the use of oil.
Chris Lindsey is a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that works to change marijuana laws around the country. He said cannabis oil laws in many states won't work until they resolve issues about in-state acquisition of the substance.
"Legislators who really are uncomfortable with medical marijuana programs will see these (cannabis oil) bills and say, 'Oh. Here's a type of medical marijuana we can allow. It's only going to be used for seizure patients, you can't get high. Let's do that,'" Lindsey said. "And then they don't really think through the regulatory infrastructure that's necessary and so they'll sort of do these quick and dirty medical marijuana bills that don't really result in functional systems."
The situation shows federal law must decriminalize marijuana before people in states like Iowa can purchase cannabis oil, Lindsey said. Until then, lawmakers should rethink enacting limited laws.
"If they don't do them carefully, you end up with a situation like Iowa," he said.
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