Read the Progressive’s follow-up to the board’s September 28 meeting here.
It’s been seven months since the Iowa Board of Pharmacy voted to recommend that the state Legislature create a task force to help establish rules for marijuana’s medical use, but in the time that’s followed no one has taken any action. This has placed Des Moines activist Carl Olsen, whose lawsuit last year led to the four public hearings that resulted in the board’s recommendation, in a familiar role as the man keeping the fight alive. In July, he submitted a petition with rules of his own that the board is set to consider during its next regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
Olsen does not expect the board to adopt his proposal, which would allow for patients to grow their own marijuana with restrictions set by supervising physicians. “The board recommended marijuana be removed from Schedule I but they [suggested it be] left in Schedule II with morphine and cocaine and methamphetamine, and I think the Legislature responded by going, ‘We don’t want to touch that. You deal with it,’” he said. He predicted the board would reject his petition because marijuana would remain too “severely classified” to be grown legally by patients. Board Executive Officer Terry Witkowski was unwilling to discuss Olsen’s challenge in any detail before the meeting, telling the Progressive only that “I am not going to try to second-guess the board.”
Back in February, things were looking up for supporters of medical marijuana. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Des Moines Democrat, said an interim committee would be formed during the summer to study the matter in preparation for the new legislative session next January. Some Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kraig Paulsen, even voiced tentative support for a bipartisan discussion.
But in the months that followed, no progress came. McCarthy cancelled plans for the committee because, he told KCCI in April, he had not been aware of marijuana’s preexisting conditional medical scheduling in the Iowa Code, “pursuant to rules of the board.” Since the pharmacy board had written no rules, McCarthy tossed the ball back into its reluctant court. In February, board Executive Director Lloyd Jessen told the Progressive that “the board really is not interested in doing it that way because it’s such a political issue.” Then in June, he told The Des Moines Register, “Even though that . . . is still in the code, it’s not the Board of Pharmacy’s role to implement a medical marijuana program.” Either way, a legislative committee would have to approve any new rules.
If the board does reject Olsen’s petition, Olsen said he plans to file another that requests marijuana be moved to a less restrictive schedule with the hope that the eventual rule-makers consider it a less dangerous substance. If the Legislature fails to remove marijuana from Schedule I status when it reconvenes in January, Olsen said, “I’m going to sue the state for failure to acknowledge that marijuana has accepted medical use in the United States, because they can’t say it doesn’t have accepted medical use in other places.”
McCarthy, through a staffer in his office, declined to comment on his role in the medical marijuana debate. “I don’t know that he ever intended to make this an issue that he’s become involved with,” his staffer said. It remains unclear whether McCarthy will speak with the Progressive after the September 28 meeting and why he committed to the interim study commission in February without knowing about the section of the Iowa Code granting the Board of Pharmacy rule-making authority. Although the KCCI broadcast in April referred to McCarthy’s discovery of the law as a “startling find,” it is a central part of Iowa’s legislative history with medical marijuana dating back to 1979. Board members mentioned the law on multiple occasions before and after their February recommendation, and the Progressive first wrote about it last September.
Regardless of McCarthy’s current take on the debate, though, it is unlikely that Iowa will legalize medical marijuana any time in the immediate future. In March, the Progressive reported that Democratic Governor Chet Culver opposed the idea and his Republican challenger in the fall probably would too. Sure enough, in the first Republican primary debate this April, former Governor Terry Branstad voiced his opposition, saying that “we should not follow the bad example of California.” All polling indicates that Branstad is cruising toward a crushing victory against Culver in November.