Local farmer taking on Grassley over medical marijuana
By ANDREW MCGINN
Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s powerful senior senator in more ways than just his record of service, has been in public office since the Eisenhower administration, having come into the world on Sept. 17, 1933.
Exactly one month after he was born — and just over 1,380 miles from Grassley’s home in Butler County — a 20-year-old Florida man named Victor Licata slaughtered his parents, two brothers and a sister with an ax as they slept.
Licata, it was said, was a marijuana addict.
Reefer madness was soon to sweep the nation, with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 — “marihuana” being the spelling of the era — outlawing cannabis as a recreational drug, taking industrial hemp and scientific research with it.
In reality, Licata was mentally ill.
Today, though, the demon weed — and it was mightily demonized throughout Grassley’s childhood in a series of Z-grade propaganda films — is still considered by the federal government to be more destructive to people than cocaine or meth.
As a Schedule I drug, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use.”
Greene County farmer Tom Duncan, who’s found himself advocating for medical marijuana over the past year, knows that just isn’t true.
He knows a family in Iowa whose child experienced 20 to 30 seizures a day.
The first night they gave their daughter cannabidiol oil — a marijuana extract that doesn’t produce a high — was the first time they slept through the night in 25 years, Duncan said.
More people in pain need access to medical cannabis, according to Duncan, but Grassley, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has so far refused to bring the bipartisan Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act up for a vote.
Billed as the most comprehensive federal legislation yet on medical marijuana, the bill has been stalled in Grassley’s committee since its introduction in 2015.
Duncan, a 58-year-old Jefferson native and 10-year cancer survivor, is part of a statewide petition drive organized by Americans for Safe Access to persuade the 82-year-old Grassley to have a change of heart.
A 1976 graduate of Jefferson Community High School, Duncan believes Grassley to be a product of his time — a child of “Reefer Madness,” if you will.
“He can’t see the medicine because it’s called marijuana,” Duncan said recently. “He grew up when all this was done, when prohibition began. He grew up hearing all the anti propaganda.”
Americans for Safe Access is in the process of collecting the signatures of Grassley’s constituents — in an election year at that — to be delivered later this summer.
“He’s always followed his constituents’ desires,” Duncan explained. “There hasn’t been a poll in this state that hasn’t polled 75 percent support for medical cannabis.”
“This,” he added, “is a lot less controversial than Merrick Garland.”
Garland is President Barack Obama’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Grassley has taken a now-infamous stand against holding a nomination hearing for Garland, with Democrats, including his Senate challenger, Patty Judge, accusing him of promoting obstruction and gridlock.
On the CARERS Act, a Grassley spokeswoman indicated to The Jefferson Herald that the senator is skeptical of the bill, which has brought together the likes of Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Al Franken, D-Minn., as co-sponsors.
“The bill could be a pathway for those who want broad legalization of marijuana for all purposes,” Grassley’s spokeswoman said. “With marijuana users being much more likely to take up heroin and other serious drugs than non-users, and with more infants being born with marijuana exposure lately, Senator Grassley has serious concerns with recreational marijuana legalization and legislation that would pave the way for such legalization.”
In addition to his role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley also chairs the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.
Grassley does, however, support research into the “potential medical benefits of marijuana and its constituent parts, including cannabidiol oil,” his spokeswoman said.
“The CARERS Act,” she added, “goes far beyond the issue of cannabidiol for epilepsy-suffering patients. It would make access to recreational and smoked marijuana much easier for many people through sweeping changes to federal marijuana and banking laws. Among other things, it would place all medical marijuana authorized by state law, as well as all cannabidiol oil derived from the marijuana plant, outside the purview of the Controlled Substances Act.
“Iowa does not permit smoked marijuana as medicine, and smoking marijuana for medical purposes isn’t approved by leading medical authorities.”
An email last week from the Herald to former Iowa Lt. Gov. Judge, Grassley’s Democratic opponent in November and a former registered nurse, inquiring about her stance on medical marijuana went unreturned.
“I’m surprised the senator hasn’t opened up his mind on this,” Duncan said.
According to Americans for Safe Access, the CARERS Act would allow state medical cannabis programs to continue without federal interference, would move cannabis from Schedule I to Schedule II in the Controlled Substances Act, would remove cannabidiol from the schedule entirely and would give researchers unfettered access to cannabis for clinical studies.
While 25 states have programs that allow patients to grow their own medicinal marijuana or buy it from a state-regulated dispensary, it’s still illegal under federal law.
With supporters citing a 75 percent reduction in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, the CARERS Act would also allow doctors within the Veterans Health Administration to recommend medical marijuana to patients in states with medical cannabis programs.
Duncan disputes the long-held notion of marijuana as a gateway drug, citing a statistic that 40 percent of Iowa high school students in the late 1970s smoked marijuana at some point.
“If it was a gateway drug,” he said, “40 percent of the population would be heroin addicts.”
The medical marijuana issue is Duncan’s first real foray into political advocacy, having been inspired to reach out to Iowans 4 Medical Cannabis in January 2015.
“The moms have been driving the medical cannabis debate in Iowa,” he said.
After seeing those mothers in action, “I decided they were people I could work with,” he said.
The Iowa Legislature in 2014 passed the Medical Cannabidiol Act, allowing neurologists to OK the use of cannabidiol (or CBD) products for patients with intractable epilepsy, in which seizures fail to come under control even with treatment.
There’s still just one catch — patients have no ability to obtain the medicine legally in Iowa.
“It’s a federal offense to take anything cannabis across state lines,” Duncan said.
In 2015, Duncan was among the advocates who returned to Des Moines to tell lawmakers that cannabidiol in Iowa remains an empty promise.
He notes the surprise addition of Bob Vander Plaats to their cause.
The prominent Christian conservative — a former Jefferson high school teacher — came out last year in support of cannabis oil production in Iowa, citing a son who suffers from seizures.
Democrats in the state are “solidly behind” medical marijuana, Duncan said.
Iowa Republicans, on the other hand, including state Sen. Jerry Behn and state Rep. Chip Baltimore, who represent Greene County, are looking to Grassley.
“They’re both totally opposed until the federal government changes its mind,” Duncan said.
With that said, Duncan set his sights on Grassley and the CARERS Act.
“At least have the vote,” Duncan said.
The CARERS Act could actually prove to be a boost for Iowa agriculture, allowing producers to grow industrial hemp, according to Duncan, a farmer himself.
“In the drive to squelch cannabis use in youth, they have enacted anti-cannabis measures at every level,” Duncan said. “It’s going to take a long time to unravel all this.”
Duncan, who had kidney cancer, remembers weekly trips a decade ago to Iowa City for treatment.
“I got to recognize the profiles of cancer patients,” he said. “Breast cancer patients were always depressed.”
Nearly every woman he struck up a conversation with, he recalled, had heard about the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana in combatting the side effects of chemotherapy.
Nearly every woman had somebody offer to get it for them.
And nearly every woman had declined, he said, solely out of fear.
“They turned it down because they were afraid of the repercussions,” Duncan said. “The legal repercussions. The social repercussions. The professional repercussions.
“It sounds like these women needlessly suffered.”
He looked around and saw a lack of advocates for patients in Iowa.
“Everybody privately supports it,” he said, “but no one wants to speak out publicly.”
To sign the petition online, visit: www.safeaccessnow.org/grassley_petition