Monday, October 4, 2010

Our View -- Careful steps toward medical marijuana

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Feb. 27, 2010.

Back in 1979, then state representatives Dale Hibbs (R-Iowa City) and Bob Arnould (D-Davenport) helped shepherd a bill through the Iowa House that would have allowed marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes in the state. With bipartisan support, Hibbs said he and Arnould managed to get the bill out of committee and onto the House floor for a full debate.

After a few hours of grueling political circus, however, Hibbs said he decided to withdraw the bill because it was abundantly clear that there wasn't the support necessary to pass the measure in that legislative session -- nor in any session in the near future.

It turns out that Hibbs, Arnould and the other sponsors of the bill were a few decades ahead of their time. Their bill came two decades before the University of Iowa held the first ever conference on the question of marijuana's medicinal value in 2000. And their bill came three decades before the Iowa Board of Pharmacy, after hosting a series of public forums across the state, unanimously voted to ask the Iowa Legislature to legalize the drug for medical use to change the classification of marijuana from a Schedule I drug (the most tightly regulated category for drugs) to a Schedule II drug (a category that already includes substances such as Demerol, opium and morphine).

"It makes me happy," Hibbs said. "It shows we were right 30 years ago."

Reasonable people can disagree whether Iowa should approve marijuana for medical purposes. The medical marijuana supporters say marijuana can help underweight patients increase their appetites as well as reduce pain, reduce muscle spasms and relieve nausea. Those benefits would help many cancer patients and AIDS sufferers. Skeptics worry that legalizing the drug for therapeutic use would lead to more recreational abuse -- which in turn would lead to users trying other illegal drugs.

But after the public forums and the board's recent recommendation, it's becoming harder and harder for opponents to argue that marijuana has "no accepted medical use for treatment in the United States."

During the October forum in Iowa City, for example, Larry Quigley told the Board of Pharmacy that marijuana has quelled the pain and spasms better than any other prescription drug he has taken since suffering a spinal cord injury 28 years earlier. Local ophthalmologist John Stamler likewise touted the benefits of marijuana in treating glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness in the U.S. And Lisa Jackson of Crawfordsville, who has fibromyalgia, explained how marijuana is the only drug that has allowed her to function.

"I was taken aback by the chronic pain people are dealing with, and they have taken every narcotic man has made with no relief and major side effects," said state Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City), who has sponsored several bills on medical marijuana in recent years. "But everyone is in fear of the law."

Although only the Legislature can change a drug's classification, the pharmacy board's recommendation hopefully will be an important component of any changes that the Legislature makes.

We're glad the conversation about medicinal marijuana use has reached this high level -- both in terms of mature discussion and political visibility. But just as some local law enforcement and hospice officials recently said to the Press-Citizen, we think it's extremely important for lawmakers to be very careful in how they draft the bill that changes the drug's classification.

Our state legislators need to learn from the successes and problems seen in the states that have passed provisions for medical marijuana. They need to ensure that whatever bill they pass includes a well-regulated system by which the chronically ill can have access to the benefits marijuana provides but that can't be easily manipulated and abused by recreational users.

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