Will Iowa Be the Next State to Legalize Medical Marijuana?

I asked that question in 2009, to open my comprehensive report on medical marijuana's history in Iowa. It popped up again a few days ago as the headline for this Iowa State Daily story. In 2009, 13 states had medical marijuana laws; now there are 20. But the answer's still almost certainly no.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, said Steve Jenison, a native of Ames, Iowa, and the former director of New Mexico's medical marijuana program, who spoke Sunday evening at Iowa State University. In 2007, after years of discussion, New Mexico became the seventh state to legalize medical marijuana through its legislature. That approach, Jenison said, allowed more time to implement the sort of tightly regulated program that states like California are so frequently criticized for lacking. (A common red herring used by Iowa foes of medical marijuana is that they don't want to see the state turn into California, where the streets in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco often reek of weed.)

Eleven states, including California, have implemented their programs through ballot initiatives, which are not an option in Iowa. In 2010, after a series of legal challenges from Des Moines activist Carl Olsen and the ACLU of Iowa, the state's Board of Pharmacy unanimously recommended that the legislature implement a medical marijuana program similar to New Mexico's.

But although state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, has repeatedly introduced medical marijuana bills, and plans to do so again next year, and although a slim majority of Iowans support it, there's very little political will. Former House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, also a Democrat, gave the idea lip service after the board's recommendation before implying several months later that he never bothered to read what was already written into Iowa law.

What was written, and what Olsen is using to continue his legal battle against the Board of Pharmacy, dates back to the federal government's Compassionate Investigational New Drug program, which legalized medical marijuana for a few seriously afflicted individuals as the result of a lawsuit in 1978. Iowa's legislature implemented laws the next year that were never removed from the Iowa Code that give the Board of Pharmacy the power to create rules for a medical marijuana program. The board has declined to do this, explaining that the legislature is ultimately responsible for creating and regulating any program.

President George Bush killed the federal program in 1992, but its remaining patients were grandfathered in, and two of the four who are still alive live in Iowa and still get joints in the mail. (I wrote about all of this in my 2009 article.)

Outside of the legislature, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad also opposes medical marijuana. In the Daily story, his spokesman dismissed it with a non sequitur, saying, "The governor does not support legalizing marijuana. He instead believes we should focus on job creation and raising family incomes."

Branstad's predecessor, Democrat Chet Culver, opposed medical marijuana too. But state Sen. Jack Hatch, one of Branstad's potential Democratic challengers in 2014, has been a reliable co-sponsor of Bolkcom's legislation. Still, the lack of a veto threat would mean nothing until the legislature turns the corner on the issue.

If you're in the state and want to catch Jenison, he will speak November 19 in Iowa City and December 2 in Des Moines before returning to New Mexico.

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