DES MOINES, Iowa — Legalizing medical marijuana will again be debated in the upcoming legislative session, though Iowa lawmakers have so far been loath to embrace a policy that is spreading in much of the country.
Democratic Sen. Joe Bolkcom, of Iowa City, said he will pursue legislation seeking to legalize medical marijuana in 2014. Bolkcom noted similar efforts have failed over the past decade, even as some Midwestern states have embraced medical marijuana.
"I think we're a cautious state, we have some conservative views on this issue," Bolkcom said. "I think what has been missing in Iowa is the compelling stories and recently, people are courageously coming forward and are sharing stories about not getting the care they need."
Bolkcom said he plans to offer two bills in the next session — one that would reclassify marijuana as a drug with medical benefits and one that would create a medical marijuana program modeled on the system in New Mexico. That program features strict oversight for patients seeking the drug for medical purposes.
A total of 20 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized medical marijuana, which advocates say eases the symptoms of illnesses like cancer, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. Among nearby states, Michigan has a medical marijuana program and Illinois is set to start one in 2014. But in general, most of the states with medical marijuana laws are clustered in the eastern and western parts of the country.
"Iowa is one of those states in which you see activity from time to time, but it doesn't have any motion. You'll see that in the South and the plains/Midwestern states," said Karmen Hanson, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, who tracks this issue. "You don't see a lot of action on these bills in those areas."
Marijuana remains classified as an illegal drug at the federal level, but President Barack Obama's administration has made it clear to federal prosecutors that it is not worth their time to go after people using medical marijuana in compliance with state laws.
A 2010 poll conducted for The Des Moines Register showed that 64 percent of Iowa residents favored legalizing medical marijuana. But many lawmakers have expressed reservations. Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, said via email that the governor did not support legalizing marijuana for medical use. And state Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, who chairs the House public safety committee, has been vocal in his opposition to any form of medical marijuana in Iowa.
"In my opinion this movement is based on one thing and that's to legalize marijuana to get high," said Baudler, a former state trooper.
The fact that the Iowa Legislature is politically divided between parties can also contribute to a lack of movement, because lawmakers aren't interested in taking up issues where there is no path to consensus.
Mason Tvert, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said there needs to be more discussion of the issue in the state.
"This issue doesn't get as much attention in Iowa as it does in other states. You need public dialogue about the issue to breed support for marijuana policy reform," Tvert said. "There is majority support there, but unfortunately there are too many legislators who are behind the times on the issue."
Hanson noted that when you look at other states, medical marijuana is not necessarily a clear Republican or Democratic issue.
"There is not a direct correlation of party and sponsorship of these bills. You'll see a wide variety of legislators sponsoring medical marijuana bills. Some folks are physicians; you'll see people who have changed their minds," Hanson said.
Maria la France, of Des Moines, is actively campaigning for the law to change because she thinks medical marijuana might help her 12-year-old son Quincy, who has suffered from debilitating epilepsy since he was a baby. She said that numerous other treatments had failed and that in other states some children with a similar condition had found relief taking marijuana in an oil form.
"We've tried all kinds of medications. Every medication he's tried has not worked but has had terrible side effects," la France said. "We've changed our entire lives to revolve around his condition. Do I have to change my entire life and move or will my state listen to me?"