Why Iowa could be a game changer in the nationwide fight for medical marijuana

by Bryan Cohen from Reader.com

There was a whiff of hypocrisy inside Conference Room A at Harrah’s Casino in Council Bluffs, where the Iowa Board of Pharmacy held its last medical marijuana hearing. While there have been no deaths and few, if any, serious addictions linked directly to use of marijuana, the board held its public meeting in a building filled with cigarette smoke, drinking, and gambling — all highly addictive, potentially fatal and absolutely legal.

While Iowa is a latecomer in the fight for medical marijuana, users and advocates come fully loaded with experiences, good and bad. Carl Olsen of Des Moines is one of those people who had good reason to testify at the Nov. 4 hearing: He was responsible for it.

In 1978 Olsen was arrested in Iowa for possession of marijuana. A member of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, Olsen said he was using marijuana for religious purposes. The church gained notoriety in the 1970s when members at a Miami compound repeatedly staved off arrests and investigations despite their open use of marijuana and importation of the plant from other countries. Church members maintain ganja is a religious sacrament — an argument that was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court.

Olsen said he never considered going to the IBP to seek justice until 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. The IBP has a statutory obligation to make periodic recommendations on the rescheduling of drugs in the state.

“At the time I didn’t see the Iowa Board of Pharmacy as the source of my problems, but they really are,” he said. “The courts won’t overturn these laws, but the IBP could (recommend it).”

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act. It’s the primary source for classifying drugs based on toxicity and addictive qualities and sets rules for production, possession, use, and penalties. Substances are divided into five Schedules, with Schedule I representing the most harmful drugs such as heroin, LSD and methamphetamines. Since 1970, marijuana has been listed among these drugs, as a substance with the highest potential for abuse and no medical benefits. Soon after the CSA passed, many states adopted nearly identical versions. The Iowa controlled substances act, which mimics the federal version, is reviewed annually by the IBP.

Olsen first petitioned the IBP in May 2008 when he discovered marijuana was listed as both a Schedule I and Schedule II drug in Iowa. The only difference between the two is Schedule I drugs lack “accepted medical use in the United States.” Since 13 states had legalized medical marijuana, Olsen reasoned there was an accepted medical use in the U.S., negating Iowa’s Schedule I classification.

The IBP said Olsen’s request was based on a legal question (the wording of what constitutes Schedule I) and that there was not enough medical evidence to warrant a recommendation to reschedule. Olsen took the issue to court, and despite a ruling that the board must answer Olsen’s questions, he never got a satisfactory answer.

However, Olsen’s petition did spark IBP’s recent medical marijuana hearings, according to board members. Olsen said it was about time.

“The fact that 13 states have legalized medical marijuana use and the IBP hadn’t even looked at it, it made them look stupid,” he said. “But I think they did a good job and I think their heart was in it.”

The IBP’s series of four public hearings across the state, meant to gauge the risks and benefits of medical marijuana, drew over 40 hours of testimony and stacks of materials overwhelmingly in support of patient’s rights. Board members told The Reader it’s unusual to hold public hearings on drug rescheduling; most rescheduling is done automatically to match recommendations from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Susan Fry, one of two pharmacy board members at the Bluffs hearing, said the board had no preconceived views on medical marijuana going into the investigation.

“We’re basically starting at square one,” she said. “We want to hear from both sides, from all sides. We’re just here to listen.”

“It’s premature to say how medical marijuana would be administered” if the legislature were to reschedule the drug, Fry said. The board is expected to make a recommendation to the state Legislature by January. Fry said the recommendation would be limited to whether marijuana should continue to be a Schedule I drug in Iowa; anything beyond that recommendation would be considered comment.

Some recent movement at the national level may have given the board a few nods in support of rescheduling. Earlier this month the American Medical Association, the nations largest organizations of doctors, urged the federal government to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II to allow for more testing. The AMA had a long-standing position against rescheduling marijuana.

Last month the U.S. Department of Justice recommended federal prosecutors stop going after medical marijuana patients and dispensaries that were complying with state laws. After a flurry of stories and rumors that suggested the move heralded a major shift in marijuana law, President Obama’s drug policy tzar, Gil Kerlikowske, said legalization was absolutely off the table and that the administration still did not support state referendums allowing the use of medical marijuana.

“Regarding state ballot initiatives concerning medical marijuana, I believe that medical questions are best decided not by popular vote, but by science,” Kerlikowske said. But medical marijuana advocates say that position only reinforces the IBP’s efforts to consider rescheduling and going through the legislature, as opposed to a state referendum.

“It’s an odd, slow, but possibly sure way to move the body politic to accept this, where other states have really struggled,” said Allen St. Pierre, spokesperson for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Out of this process, law enforcement officials will be so much more willing to comply with the law.”

Iowa is often seen as a bellwether state in U.S. politics; legalization of medical marijuana could be politically groundbreaking. An IBP recommendation followed by legislative rescheduling would also skirt many of the political and legal hurdles states like California have faced. Instead of dealing with claims that out-of-state interests rammed a referendum through Iowa, the current procedure would pair a respected state pharmaceutical board decision with the normal lawmaking process.

That is, of course, somewhat wishful thinking for marijuana advocates. Most state legislators who were questioned say that movement on the issue is unlikely. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) is also an outspoken foe of medical marijuana. He sharply criticized the Obama Administration for its hands-off policy on state sanctioned medical marijuana.

In the meantime, Iowa remains a “zero-tolerance” state on marijuana possession and continues to push patients like Patterson to go elsewhere. A former Iowa resident who now lives in California, Patterson testified at the Bluffs hearing. She suffers from cerebral palsy which has caused her to speak with a severe stutter; a stutter Patterson says is drastically reduced by only a few drags of marijuana.

“I have been on many prescription medications, those did not assist me in controlling my stutter nearly as effectively as cannabis,” she said at the hearing. “Nobody deserves to lose custody over their children because of the medication they use. Nobody deserves to feel like a criminal.”

To see “before and after” video of Jacqueline, check out the documentary In Pot We Trust.

[Editor’s note: Here is a clip from In Pot We Trust featuring Jacqueline]

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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