Senate sends medical marijuana bill to governor after fiery debate

A worker touches plants at a cannabis greenhouse on March 7, 2011. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

After a testy debate, the Iowa Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that critics said will leave many Iowans in pain, with poorly treated autism and maybe with lost unemployment benefits. 

Senators traded barbs with so much force that Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, had to stop the action several times to calm tempers and enforce rules of decorum. 

“This is a step forward,” floor manager Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said when the dust cleared. The bill reduces the levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, that can be dispensed compared to legislation the Senate approved last year. But it adds post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autism with self-harm to the list of illnesses covered, and allows medical personnel to order higher doses in certain cases. 

Sen. Brad Zaun is a Republican from Urbandale. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

Before the vote, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said the bill discriminates against poor people and members of racial minorities who are more likely to be arrested and jailed for marijuana possession. It also prevents many Iowans from getting the treatment they need, he contended. 

“You are caving into Gov. (Kim) Reynolds, who frankly hasn’t done her homework on this and she has received bad advice,” Bolkcom said. “We have had a rough week. There are probably people going to be down here tonight,” he added, referring to a string of protests over the death of a black man during a Minneapolis arrest involving a white officer. 

The legislation was approved largely along party lines, 32-17. The House approved the bill 52-48 in March before the session was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The legislation now goes to the governor’s desk. Reynolds had negotiated with lawmakers but GOP senators said Reynolds stuck by the state’s medical cannabidiol board’s recommendation.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom is a Democrat from Iowa City. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

Bolkcom, who at one point was called out of order during his comments on the floor, later said, “I happen to believe this is a punitive policy. You don’t put them in jail, you just put them in poverty. “

The language was raw at times. Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, said he has pushed for eight years for a better medical marijuana bill. “We should be ramming this bill down the throat of the governor,” Taylor said. “You can get higher THC if you are dying? To hell with that.”

The bill, House File 2589, generally says dispensaries can’t provide more than 4.5 grams of the the active ingredient, THC, in a 90-day window, with some exceptions. 

The vote came a year after Reynolds vetoed a bill, strongly supported in both chambers, that would have that would have allowed 25 grams of THC during a 90-day period. Reynolds said she vetoed the bill because it went beyond a recommendation from a state panel. 

This year’s legislation aligned with the wishes of Reynolds, a state board, and the Iowa Association of Business Industry, which sought to address workers under the influence of marijuana. ABI, which represents some of Iowa’s largest manufacturers and other employers, wants to disqualify those found to be under the influence of drugs at work from unemployment benefits if they don’t have a prescription.

Even the floor manager, Zaun said the bill fell short of what he wanted.”The Senate bill was a stronger bill,” Zaun said of last year’s vetoed legislation. “I would rather this be a stronger bill, but this is something that has been negotiated,” he added.

Perry Beeman
Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.