The Iowa Senate voted Thursday to decriminalize medical cannabis oil for the treatment of epilepsy, responding to emotional pleas of Iowa parents with children stricken by seizures.
Senate File 2360 was approved 36-12 after a lengthy debate that included several Republican lawmakers who warned that legalizing any form of marijuana would send the wrong message to young people in jeopardy of abusing drugs.
The bill was sent to the Iowa House, where its path to passage remains uncertain despite vocal support from some Democrats and Republicans alike.
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, the bill’s floor manager, recounted the stories of Iowa children who have suffered greatly — sometimes experiencing hundreds of seizures daily — while their parents frantically searched for remedies to alleviate, but not necessarily cure, their children’s ailments.
“This legislation responds to these stories in a compassionate Iowa way,” Bolkcom said, adding that perhaps only a few hundred Iowans would directly benefit.
The bill creates a licensing system by which patients with “intractable” epilepsy and their caregivers may pursue treatment with cannabidiol, an oil derived from marijuana that has been shown to reduce seizures and improve other symptoms related to the illness.
The legislation says patients or caregivers who receive a neurologist’s recommendation for cannabidiol could apply for a state-issued identification card allowing them to possess and use the oil without fear of prosecution under state marijuana laws.
The substance is not smokable and contains low amounts of THC, the substance that gets users high.
The floor debate elicited emotional discussion among both Democrats and Republicans, all of whom expressed empathy for parents with suffering children, although some had serious reservations about approving anything associated with marijuana.
Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, told of coming from a family in which brothers and a father experienced drug addiction. “This is a very hard vote for me,” he said, explaining compassion caused him to support the legislation.
Sen. Nancy Boettger, R-Harlan, said her heart goes out to the parents of sick children. But she worried about how an affirmative vote would be perceived by teenagers throughout Iowa reading that lawmakers have approved marijuana oil.
The bill does not allow for the cultivation, production or sale of the oil, meaning patients or caregivers will have to obtain it in states with less restrictive medical marijuana rules. The measure contains provisions for reciprocity with other states that have programs for patients with epilepsy.
It is unclear, at this point, where exactly patients and caregivers may be able to obtain cannabidiol, given the patchwork of state laws concerning medical marijuana and the availability of the highly specialized formulation of the oil.
Some lawmakers have suggested Colorado, and parents said Wednesday they may have to go to Oregon, Michigan or elsewhere.
As in the Senate, a small but devoted group of Republican lawmakers has helped negotiate and craft the cannabidiol bill now under consideration, underscoring the bipartisan nature of the discussion and perhaps helping to ensure passage within the next few days.
Rep. Rob Taylor, R-West Des Moines, said Thursday that he’d been quietly educating fellow lawmakers and advocating on behalf of the legislation for three and a half months. He counted himself “cautiously optimistic” that the measure could pass this year.
If all 47 Democrats voted yes, just four Republicans would be needed to reach a 51-vote majority and secure House passage of the bill. It’ll surely take more than that, however, for the chamber’s Republican leaders to allow a vote. The majority party very rarely allows bills to advance without a substantial majority of its caucus providing votes in favor.
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