Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Don't hold breath for medical marijuana

LINCOLN - In Iowa, the wheels of state government are turning toward
making the Hawkeye State the 16th to legalize the use of medical

Don't bet on that happening in neighboring Nebraska anytime soon.

"I think it would be a hard sell here," said State Sen. Tim Gay of
Papillion, chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, the
legislative panel that would review such a proposal.

Gay and other officials in the Cornhusker State said they've heard of
little, if any, push for legalizing medical marijuana here.

"It's not in the mix of issues that have been brought to us from people
seeking assistance," said Laurel Marsh, executive director of ACLU

But, Marsh added, with the issue gaining publicity in Iowa, she expects
that someone eventually will seek legalization here.

There is momentum right now for medical marijuana after the Obama
administration decided to end federal raids on medicinal pot

Under the Bush administration, federal agents had closed medical
marijuana outlets even if they were legally operating under state laws.
The new policy, outlined in October, is to let states decide.

And decide they have.

Fifteen states as well as the District of Columbia now have medical
marijuana laws, according to the National Conference of State
Legislatures. Another 15 states, including Iowa, Kansas and Missouri,
are considering legalization bills.

It wasn't a public outcry but the determined efforts of two Iowans that
has that state on the doorstep of legalization.

George McMahon and Barbara Douglas were enrolled in the 1970s-era
Compassionate Use and Investigational Drug program, a federal program
that allowed them to receive monthly shipments of marijuana.

A lawsuit filed on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union
asserted that Iowa had misclassified marijuana as a dangerous and
addictive "Schedule I" drug with no medical benefits. LSD and mescaline,
two psychedelic drugs that gained notoriety in the 1960s, are examples
of Schedule I drugs.

The lawsuit prompted a Polk County, Iowa, judge to order the Iowa Board
of Pharmacy to review whether marijuana should be reclassified as a
"Schedule II" drug, which has the potential for harm but also has
medicinal benefits. Opium, which can be prescribed, is an example of a
Schedule II drug.

The pharmacy board held four public hearings in which advocates praised
pot for quelling nausea in cancer and AIDs patients, reducing inner-eye
pressure in glaucoma patients and limiting muscle pain in multiple
sclerosis patients.

"If you want to be intellectually honest, here's a substance that
provides some amazing relief for some people with some very difficult
symptoms," said Randall Wilson, legal director for ACLU Iowa. "We said,
hey, more than 25 percent of the U.S. population lives in states where
marijuana is used medically."

Critics say the research on the medical benefits is not conclusive.
Organizations like the Food and Drug Administration maintain that not
only is there no proven benefit, smoking marijuana is clearly harmful.

The public hearings in Iowa led to a unanimous recommendation by the
pharmacy board on Feb. 17 that the Iowa Legislature legalize marijuana
for medical use.

The recommendation also suggested that a task force of law enforcement
officers, physicians and chronic-pain sufferers be convened to determine
how medical marijuana would be distributed and managed.

Don't expect Iowa to follow the lead of California, where a vaguely
worded 1996 ballot initiative has led to a near free-for-all of
marijuana dispensaries, including 800 in Los Angeles, which some call
the marijuana dispensary capital of the country. Critics complain about
the loose justifications used by doctors to write prescriptions for pot.

"Let me be very clear on this ... that's not going to pass in the Iowa
Legislature," said State Sen. Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, the
Senate majority leader.

Both Gronstal and Wilson say that if access to medicinal marijuana is
limited to those suffering from serious diseases, passage of a bill is

Wilson put the odds at 50-50 or better. He pointed to a recent poll in
the Des Moines Register that found that 64 percent of Iowans supported
medical marijuana, with doctor approval.

In Nebraska, there have been no bills introduced to allow medical
marijuana use and no discussion within the Board of Pharmacy.

Hastings pharmacist Patty Gollner, who recently joined the pharmacy
board, said she saw a lot of publicity about medicinal pot during a
recent skiing trip to Colorado, but she has not been approached by
anyone to push for legalization here.

Kevin Borcher, vice chairman of the Nebraska Board of Pharmacy, said
it's not an issue that's come up at his job in the pharmacy at Nebraska
Methodist Hospital.

"My personal feeling, not related to the board, is there's not enough
clear evidence to make it happen," he said.

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