Iowa Senator introducing bill to legalize medicinal marijuana

by Emily Friese, The Daily Iowan

Iowa could be next in line to legalize medicinal marijuana.

Come January, when lawmakers return to the capital, legislation to decriminalize medical use of the drug will once again be introduced. Twenty states have legalized medical marijuana use to date.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, who has supported medicinal marijuana for years, said he attempted to pass legislation on the topic roughly five times in the past 15 years. But he has yet to make any significant progress toward the goal.

The bill will attempt to remove the state’s current restrictions as well as establish a program to allow patients legal access for chronic medical conditions.

“There are people in the health-care system that have been prescribed the most powerful drugs in the market, yet they do not provide pain relief from chronic conditions,” Bolkcom said. “Therefore, these patients and their family members are forced to illegally obtain marijuana.”

As of now, marijuana is a Schedule I drug — meaning there is no medical use or value to the drug, according to the federal Controlled Substance Act. Bolkcom said he hopes marijuana use moves from Schedule I to II, which would enable medical use, and in some cases, prescriptions for patients.

“I think it’s an uphill fight,” he said. “Privately, there are a lot of legislators saying they’re supportive, but they’re nervous their vote in favor of creating a medical marijuana program could be used against them in the next campaign.”

The state Board of Pharmacy, on a 6-0 vote, advocated rescheduling marijuana to Schedule II in 2010.

However, Doug Beardsley, the director of Johnson County Public Health, said he thinks decriminalization poses risks for the public, and that more research needs to be conducted.

“How is a doctor supposed to prescribe this?” he said. “In other states, doctors will say, ‘Here’s a pack of seeds, go home, grow it, roll it up, and smoke it.’ Doctors need to know the doses’ effects and adjust the dose based on the need of the patient.”

Bolkcom said reconsidering the drug’s legal position might also help Iowa’s jail system. According to the Marijuana Policy Project website, in 2010, more than 6,600 people were arrested in Iowa for marijuana offenses.

“It’s an incredible waste of law-enforcement resources, it’s an incredible waste of the court’s resources, and we have tons of people in Iowa prisons as a result of use of marijuana,” he said.

University of Iowa Associate Professor of political science Timothy Hagle said he does not think the bill has high chances of passing.

“Bolkcom would have to make a pretty good case that this is something that won’t cause harm,” he said. “Not only that, but there should be benefits to it. There’s a national resistance from folks and state legislators that don’t want to be seen as pro-drug use.”

Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said he agrees that Bolkcom has a lot of persuading to do.

“With medical marijuana, there are a lot of concerns,” he said. “I mean, look how that was implemented in California, where it basically turned to recreational use with some prescription. I think the chance of this passing is pretty dim.”

Hagle said he does not believe the state government is ready to deal with the wave of additional concerns that would follow legalization.

“If we legalize this, how does that influence showing up to work and school?” he said. “You’re not supposed to show up drunk, but is that the same as showing up under the influence of marijuana?”

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