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DES MOINES | The chief legislative proponent of legalized medical marijuana concedes that his bill is dead for the current legislative session, but he said it's gaining bipartisan support and will be an issue in this year’s Iowa gubernatorial and legislative races.

"When 81 percent of Iowans want us to put a program in place to help suffering Iowans, people are going to have to have a position,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said Friday. "I think there is movement in the Legislature in a bipartisan way. I’m optimistic that will grow.”

However, lawmakers can do only so much, he said during the taping of "Iowa Press," a weekly Iowa Public Television program.

"We're going to need a governor willing to enact a law that ends the suffering for so many people,” Bolkcom said. "It is going to be one of the issues in the gubernatorial race.”

Good policy and good law take time, Steve Lukan, the governor’s director of the Office of Drug Control Policy said, urging a go-slow approach to allowing people to use medicinal marijuana to treat a variety of problems, from chronic pain to epilepsy to combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Everybody, I think, wants to help people who are in desperate need,” he said. "But when legislators are crafting policy — and I’m a former legislator and I know how hard this can be — you don't want to pass laws that actually end up allowing harm to happen in the name of doing good. So good laws take time, good laws take a lot of research and thorough review.”

Steve Gaer is all for that, but as the father of a child who suffers from seizures, he'd like access to medicinal marijuana while Lukan is waiting for the research and reviews.

Without access to medical marijuana, Gaer, the mayor of West Des Moines, said he and his wife are in the position of either not being able to use a medicine they believe will help their daughter "or we have to leave the communities we’ve grown up in, our family, our friends, our churches, our health care providers, our respite care providers, and go to a strange state to get help for our child, and then we can’t bring them back to visit their grandparents, their nieces, their nephews, their family members.”

"It is a horrible situation,” Gaer said.

He also rejected Lukan’s caution that until the long-term effects of medical marijuana are known, it should not be made available.

"They don’t know how these legal drugs interact with each other,” Gaer added.

His daughter, Margaret, is taking four seizure medications and two others to counteract their bad side effects.

“This child is 5 years old mentally. She's 24 years old physically because of the medications they're allowed to put her on,” Gaer said. "We’re in a position of either she's going to be mentally challenged or she’s going to pass away. What kind of a choice is that?”

For anything to happen, Bolkcom said, it will take bipartisan support, and he believes that’s happening. This week, 10 senators — five Republicans and five Democrats — asked for an interim committee to study the issue and make legislative recommendations.

"So I actually feel like we have made progress,” Bolkcom said, adding that he's not surprised by the bipartisan support because “party affiliation has no meaning when people have chronic, debilitating conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Dravet syndrome or a spinal cord injury that somebody doesn’t get better from.”

While he called Gov. Terry Branstad "uninformed” on the issue, Bolkcom said, "more members of the Legislature are slowly learning more about it, and they're hearing from their constituents that this is a real issue they'd like addressed.”

The governor approaches the issues "with a great deal of caution and really wants to make sure we are ensuring a secure, safe, sound health care system for all Iowans,” Lukan said. "Everybody, I think, wants to help people who are in desperate need … wants to move down the path of helping others. The governor certainly has compassion and wants to do that as well. There’s some real policy issues that I think we need to be thoughtful about.”

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Statehouse reporter for The Courier

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