Iowa Senate panel gives preliminary approval to effort to expand medical marijuana access


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DES MOINES, Iowa — An effort to expand access to medical marijuana in Iowa won preliminary approval in the state Senate on Wednesday, as lawmakers seek to respond to critics who say a limited law passed last year is ineffective.

A subcommittee in the Democratic-majority Senate approved the bill, which would make medical marijuana available to people with a number of chronic diseases, including cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Those approved by a doctor would then purchase marijuana products produced in Iowa at state-run dispensaries.

Last year, the Legislature approved a law that allows some residents with epilepsy to use oil with an ingredient derived from marijuana for treatment. But the law did not establish an in-state program for the production and distribution of the oil. Critics say that as a result, the law is effectively useless.

Advocates testified Wednesday that the proposal would help people suffering from illness. Lori Tassin of Des Moines told the committee that she wants to try medical marijuana as part of her cancer treatment.

"This is a medicine and treatment option we should have," said Tassin, 43, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010. She noted that she could try medical marijuana in other states. "Because I live in Iowa, does that mean my life doesn't matter?"

The bill now moves to a full committee hearing. It will face challenges in the Republican-controlled House, where lawmakers have expressed reluctance to expand access.

Bob Vander Plaats, the head of a powerful religious conservative organization in the state, urged state leaders on Wednesday to make it legal to purchase and produce cannabis oil in Iowa. Vander Plaats, who stressed that he was speaking on his own behalf, not for his group, said he has an adult son who was born with severe developmental disabilities and suffers from seizures.

"This year we believe we need to lend a voice because we see a gap," said Vander Plaats, who said he wasn't supporting any specific bill. "There really isn't any access for these parents."

A recent poll in the Des Moines Register showed that 70 percent of adults support legalizing medical marijuana. The telephone poll of 807 adults was conducted by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines between Feb. 15 and 18. It had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

A total of 23 states and the District of Columbia have comprehensive medical marijuana programs and 11 others offer more limited access to some cannabis products, according to the National Conference for State Legislatures.

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