Guest opinion: Time to protect Iowa’s patients

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Last year, the Iowa Legislature and Governor Terry Branstad acted with compassion and wisdom by enacting a law to protect epilepsy patients and their families from criminal liability for the possession of cannabidiol (CBD) oil, a non- psychoactive (i.e., does not make you “high”) extract of marijuana plants. Many families have witnessed the undeniable benefits of CBD oil on their children, who seized hundreds of times a day despite conventional medical treatments; but until the 2014 Iowa Medical Cannabidiol Act (IMCA, SF 2360), these families risked state prosecution for simply trying to relieve their children’s suffering. Thankfully, the state legislature recognized that as a just society, we should not criminalize these families, and Iowans may now apply to legally possess CBD oil.

As a physician, I understand the importance of rigorous scientific analysis for new treatments like CBD oil. Currently, there are limited human clinical trials that support the use of CBD oil in the treatment of epilepsy, and substantial scientific literature describing the importance of CBD-like chemicals in regulating electrical impulses, the basis of epilepsy. Unfortunately, we are being denied further knowledge of CBD because clinical trials have been obstructed by Federal drug policies that define CBD and all forms of medical cannabis as an illicit Schedule I drug, a category of dangerous drugs without medical benefit – which includes LSD and heroin.

Even more worrisome, these federal policies mean that despite the fact that Iowans may legally possess CBD under state law, they are breaking federal law, and risking federal prosecution and conviction for helping their suffering loved ones.

Such barriers to research and compassionate access are devastating to the families and patients for whom conventional treatments have failed. In order to protect Iowans, we must correct these imbalances in federal law. Thankfully, there is federal legislation that would do just that. The CARERS Act (S. 683) would exclude CBD from the federal definition of marijuana and move medical cannabis to Schedule II, removing substantial barriers to further medical research. The CARERS Act would also affirm the right of states to set their own CBD and medical cannabis policies and exempt individuals compliant with state law from federal prosecution – protecting Iowans who participate in the CBD program.

Iowa’s own Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is in a unique position to protect Iowan CBD patients. The CARERS Act must pass through the Senate Judiciary Committee before it can become law, and Senator Grassley can order the committee to consider the bill and vote on it. Sen. Grassley has already acted to bring more attention to CBD, and has pushed federal administrators to remove barriers to research– but he must do even more for Iowans by helping pass the CARERS Act at the federal level.

At the state level, Iowa’s legislature should extend the compassion that it has shown for children with epilepsy to those with cancer, MS, severe chronic pain and other conditions. These patients get relief from their terrible pain and suffering from medical cannabis, even when other treatments have failed.

I understand some might worry about expanding Iowa’s medical cannabis program. When I was assigned the role of first Medical Director of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program, I accepted the post with reluctance and skepticism – even doubting some patients’ claims. But after hearing the stories of hundreds of patients and their doctors, I am thoroughly convinced that their experiences are real, valid and important, and that the use of medical cannabis should never be a criminal activity.

Steven Jenison, M.D. is a native Iowan and graduate of Iowa State University (BS, 1975) and the University of Iowa College of Medicine (MD, 1981).  He was the first Medical Director of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program and currently serves as Chair of its Medical Advisory Board.

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