West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer (R) and Senator Joe Bolkcom discussed medical cannabis on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press.
Joining Bolkco and Gaer at the Iowa Press table were moderator Dean Borg; Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa; and James Lynch, political reporter for The Gazette.
Steve Gaer, as usual, did an amazing job. Highlights of the conversation are below:
Lynch: Let me ask you about that interim committee. There’s five democrats and five republicans have proposed this and it’s the full spectrum, liberals like you, conservatives like Ken Rozenboom and Michael Breitbach. What does that tell you about this issue that you can bring together 10 senators from that spectrum of political beliefs?
Bolkcom: People get sick. The party affiliation has no meaning when people have chronic, debilitating conditions like multiple sclerosis or Dravet Syndrome or a spinal cord injury that somebody doesn’t’ get better from. And there’s interest beyond party affiliation about trying to provide compassion and medicine to these folks in our communities and I think more members of the legislature are slowly learning more about it and they’re hearing from their constituents that this is a real issue they’d like addressed.
* * *
Lynch: Mayor Gaer, the Senator said that he’s going to keep working on this issue. I assume that this isn’t the end of the road for you, that the lack of legislation this year doesn’t stop you from pursuing some sort of medical marijuana legalization?
Gaer: Correct. Yeah, we’re going to keep working on it. What we would like to see, there’s actually seven states that have interim legislation pending that would allow people that have epilepsy to get access to the liquefied version of the medical marijuana that is so low in THC that you can’t get high on it. They have recognized that it is very helpful for these folks. It’s not addictive. It can’t be abused. And seven states have said, we need to at least pass this for the folks in our state who need access to this medication while we take another year to try to figure out all the nuances of a more comprehensive bill. So we would like to see this interim legislation passed like is being proposed and actually passed in one state and being proposed in six others.
* * *
Borg: Mr. Gaer, I want to ask you also about the Governor’s statement and the stand about it is a particularly small group of people and we’d be crafting a law just for them. You’re a republican. You are Mayor of West Des Moines. And so you know the politics of all this and we’ve already heard there’s bipartisan support here. So how do you defend what the Governor says that you are a very small group of people who would be helped by this?
Gaer: Well, I wrote my first letter to the editor after I heard those comments and I thought it was very unfair because there are more than a few people. I have heard from families all over Iowa who have challenges medically who have said, my doctor said if I could get access to medical cannabis it would help me. And my position is, is that we shouldn’t have to move from Iowa to another state to get the help that we need. I’m a fourth generation West Des Moines resident. My son lives here so he is our fifth generation. Our health care shouldn’t be dictated by what zip code we live in. And some of these medical marijuana laws have been passed back in 1998. Alaska and Oregon passed it in 1998. This has been around for 16 years. There’s 117 million people in the United States that have had access to this medicine. There are no horror stories coming out of these states that have medical marijuana. The only horror stories that people point to are places like Colorado where it has been legalized. And in fairness to us, it’s obvious that it helps. My daughter is on a non-FDA approved drug. Our point is, let us have access to this medicine if our doctor thinks it is going to help my daughter while they go ahead and do studies. She has been on two of those medications already. Don’t deny us something that we know and people have testified have had dramatic improvement in people’s health care.
* * *
Henderson: Let’s talk about the drug or the device which delivers the solace that you and your family seek. You’re not talking about something that’s a cigarette, right? You’re talking about something that is either a pill or an oil, right?
Gaer: Correct. It’s an oil form and the version, they call it Charlotte’s Web, the version that they grow has virtually no THC in it. So even if a drug person were to get a hold of this and try to smoke it, it doesn’t do anything for them. This medication for people with epilepsy has so low THC in it that you can’t get high on it and it’s in an oil form that they take just like you would cough syrup. So that’s I think why these other seven states have said, let’s at least pass this for these folks because it’s so beneficial and it’s not subject to abuse.
* * *
Gaer: And I think you should put this in the context of what legally they have given my daughter and what it has done to her. When she was eight months old we were at the University of Iowa Hospital and the neurologist said, Steve, once we start putting Margaret on this medication it will stunt her mental growth. She’s 24 years old and she’s five years old mentally. That has occurred because of the legal medications that we said we need to give your daughter to preserve her life. She’s on four anti-seizure medications right now, she’s on two more medications to counteract the side effects of the four that she’s on. Medical cannabis cannot have any worse side effects than what this little girl has already suffered from legal medications that have been available to her.
Lynch: I want to ask you about that because a lot of what we hear, you have firsthand knowledge of this, but a lot of what we hear is anecdotal evidence, that it’s not coming out of research institutions, it’s people saying I find that marijuana helps me with my anxiety, with some chronic pain, that sort of thing. But do you feel safe, do you feel like you know enough to give medicinal marijuana to your daughter for years, possibly for life? Do you know enough about the effects?
Gaer: I feel like we do, especially in light of families that have taken it for a long time. You take Charlotte Figi who Charlotte’s Web is named after, she was having 300 seizures a week and she’s down to a couple. There’s a mother who lived in Waterloo who took her daughter out to Colorado in November. She’s going to come back to the Capitol on Monday and testify that 30%, she has reduced her daughter’s seizures by 30%. This medication cannot have any worse side effects than what Margaret has been on for 24 years already, especially in light of the families and how much help it has given her. And isn’t that our decision to make? If her doctor says, we think Margaret would do well on this, isn’t that our decision to make with our doctor and not the government’s?
* * *
Henderson: Let’s talk about New Mexico, which a lot of people refer to who would like the state of Iowa to enact a law. How does the New Mexico law work, Senator Bolkcom?
Bolkcom: Yeah, in 2010 our Iowa Board of Pharmacy, after an exhaustive review looking around the country at the programs made the suggestion that New Mexico would be a good model. They also reviewed all the scientific literature that was available, the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy reported on that and said, indeed, cannabis will work as a medicine. The New Mexico law defines a set of conditions that one could get cannabis under, requires a doctor to basically testify that you as a patient have had all the treatments that are available, all the powerful drugs that are available without relief. Then that application for cannabis approval would go to the State Department of Public Health where a doctor, a medical director of the New Mexico cannabis program would essentially approve it or not approve it, need more information, no this makes sense, the card is issued and then in New Mexico they have developed a set of non-profit dispensaries where the cannabis is grown and it is also dispensed. In states around the country, all of this cannabis is grown inside, it is regulated, it is monitored by the state and people that get a card have to have that renewed every year. It prevents doctor shopping because at the state level they review, we asked, do people go doctor shopping? Of course, they do. But the medical director at the state department is able to weed out those doctors that simply willy-nilly give prescriptions. So we think it’s a very restrictive program. There are other models. This interim committee will look to find the best approach for Iowa.
* * *
Henderson: Mr. Gaer, Mr. Bolkcom had cited some public opinion research on this. A recent poll showed that eight out of ten Iowans support medical marijuana. But it also showed that support was far weaker among republicans. As you go up to the Statehouse do you find a republican, your fellow republicans receptive? And if they aren’t, what is your message to them?
Gaer: Well, clearly the ones that I have worked with over my local political career are because they know us personally. Many of them have met Margaret so they all have said, look Steve, we need to figure out a way to make this available to help folks like you, we have to make sure that we have parameters around it so we can express to our voters that this is not something that’s going to get out of hand. But they all are very, very understanding of it and said, Steve, it’s not a matter of if, it’s when, we just need to figure out how to do it right.
Borg: Okay. Jim?
Lynch: I just wanted to jump in and say, would this be different if it wasn’t an election year? Would this issue have moved faster or farther if this wasn’t an election year and people had to worry about what might come back to bite them in November?
Bolkcom: I think there’s two things. I think there’s a level of awareness that has not been reached here by members. Members of the legislature try to do their best to do what people back home talk to them about and they haven’t heard enough — and it’s an election year and because they haven’t heard enough people aren’t ready to take a risk in an election year around a topic that has obviously got some controversy to it.
* * *
Alright, that’s it for my highlights from the show’s transcript. Click here to download the full transcript.