In his ongoing battle to legalize medical marijuana in Iowa, Des Moines activist Carl Olsen has encountered a new foe: the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy (ODCP). For the new legislative session next month, the office plans to propose that the Statehouse remove a dormant section of the Iowa Code granting marijuana conditional medical scheduling “pursuant to the rules” of the state’s Board of Pharmacy. That would eliminate what had been one of Olsen’s key legal arguments in his dogged efforts to get things to where they are today.
Late last month, the pharmacy board also said it would tell the Legislature to remove that language of the Iowa Code, but then to place pot in the medically accessible Schedule II. “All I know is I just won today,” Olsen told the Des Moines Register after the board’s unanimous decision. “But how much did I win? I don’t know.” If lawmakers go the board’s suggested route instead of the ODCP’s, Olsen believes it will provide him the foundation to challenge marijuana’s prohibitive federal classification – something he says states that already have medical marijuana programs can’t do because of how they’ve skirted federal law.
ODCP Associate Director Dale Woolery says that despite his office’s opposition to medical marijuana, “We want to keep an open mind as to what the science might show.” In a series of four public hearings held last fall, a slew of scientific evidence of marijuana’s medicinal properties was presented to the pharmacy board, which led to its initial decision to support medical pot this February. Still, Woolery holds firm, saying, “Science doesn’t really indicate smoked or raw marijuana is a medicine so much as some of the compounds within it.” He suggests that these compounds be isolated for medical use, following the example of the (questionably effective) synthetic THC drug Marinol.
Olsen is not pleased with the ODCP’s posturing. In an e-mail to Woolery obtained by the Progressive, he questioned the legality of its involvement. “Your office did not present any evidence [at the hearings] and your office has no statutory authority to consider scheduling,” Olsen wrote. “Please think before your office goes sticking its nose into business it has no authority to interfere with.” But Woolery says that while the ODCP didn’t attend last year’s hearings because it “thought that being there might not be useful,” it did review transcripts of each one. Now, he says, “I guess it’s a matter of making sure all other opinions are out there.”
Regardless, a schedule change favorable to Olsen may be hard to come by. Pharmacy board chairman Vernon Benjamin calls the issue “political football.” Legislators, he assumes, will “dodge and weave and attempt to get away from this issue” during the new session. The Progressive reported in September that soon-to-be House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy indicated that there wouldn’t be much interest in the topic next year – this after his empty promise earlier this year to establish a summer study on how to set up a medical marijuana program.
But Olsen remains optimistic. He says politicians opposed to medical marijuana, including Republican Governor-elect Terry Branstad, might be open to the board’s proposal to reclassify the drug. That would acknowledge pot’s medical utility but wouldn’t create a system of production and distribution. Says Benjamin, echoing the views of several lawmakers, “Whatever plan going forward has to be right. We’re not going to screw this up the way California has.” Olsen says he’s now waiting to see if the Legislature chooses to act on the board’s rescheduling recommendation before making his next move. If the board is ignored, that next move may be a lawsuit against the state.
Pharmacy Board to Pot Activist: It’s up to the Legislature Now
The Search for a Medical Marijuana Rule-Maker
Medical Marijuana’s Uncertain Path Forward
The Cannabis Crusade: Could Iowa Become the 14th State to Legalize Medical Marijuana?