Advocates hope for broader medical marijuana law in Iowa, after narrow rules passed this year



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DES MOINES, Iowa — A narrowly focused medical marijuana law just took effect in Iowa, but advocates are already looking to see how they can expand access to the drug for the chronically ill.

State lawmakers this year approved legislation that allows the use of oil derived from marijuana to treat chronic epilepsy. The law — driven largely by advocacy from mothers of children with epilepsy — includes strict rules for acquiring the oil, such as requiring a state registration card and that the oil must be bought from another state that produces it.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, said he hopes the bill, which he sponsored, is a first step toward a more comprehensive medical marijuana law. While his past efforts have been unsuccessful, Bolkcom said he thinks the tide is turning. He hopes to get bipartisan support for such legislation in 2015.

"Members that supported the effort have gotten a lot of positive feedback from Iowans about this. People are more informed about it because of this year," Bolkcom said.

A total of 23 states and the District of Colombia have public medical marijuana programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 11, including Iowa, have more limited access laws. Advocates contend the drug eases the symptoms of illnesses like cancer, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis.

Gaining approval for even the limited marijuana oil law was difficult, and many Iowa lawmakers appear hesitant to go further.

Republican state Rep. Walt Rogers, from Cedar Falls, said he would not support broader legislation. He did not vote for the bill that passed this year, because he thought it sent the wrong message to teenagers about drug use.

"I am afraid of the slippery slope," said Rogers, adding that he feared permitting medical marijuana could lead to legalizing marijuana all together.

A spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad said the Republican governor thinks the state must be cautious about expanding a law that just took effect.

Marijuana remains classified as an illegal drug at the federal level, but President Barack Obama's administration has made it clear to federal prosecutors that it is not worth their time to go after people using medical marijuana in compliance with state laws.

A March poll by Quinnipiac University showed 81 percent of Iowa registered voters supported the legalization of medical marijuana for adults if a doctor prescribed it.

Because the state has not finalized the implementation rules for the new marijuana law, families have not yet been able to start the process of buying the oil.

Sally Gaer, whose 24-year-old daughter Margaret has a severe epileptic condition, is one of the parents who lobbied for the new law in Iowa. Gaer, 53, of West Des Moines, said she is hopeful the access to the oil will help. But she added that this law still puts a heavy burden on families who want to try this treatment and she hopes to see an expansion of the law.

"It's one more burden on families. We have a hard enough life," Gaer said. "In my mind it's yeah you can possess it, but good luck getting it."

Logan Edwards, a military veteran who has been lobbying for medical marijuana in Iowa, said he is frustrated by the limited scope of the law. Edwards, 27, said he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome due to his time serving in Iraq with the Marines in 2007 and 2008. He wants marijuana to help with his symptoms and is moving to Colorado, where marijuana is legal for recreational use.

"The bill didn't decriminalize it. I don't sell or grow marijuana, but if I get caught with it, they don't care that I have a medical reason," said Edwards, who has been living in Davenport and said he hopes to return to Iowa. "I have a three year old daughter here. I'd much rather stay here."

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