Iowa officials are requesting that federal agencies guarantee they won’t punish people for participating in the state’s medical marijuana program, avoiding a protracted legal challenge in the process.
Last year, the legislature approved a bill that required the state to seek the protections for its medical cannabis program from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). After months of inaction, activist Carl Olsen filed suit against the governor, alleging that she failed to ensure that the law was effectively carried out because the Department of Public Health had unnecessarily delayed the mandated request.
But within weeks of that lawsuit being filed, the state department on April 23 sent letters to DEA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Education seeking a policy carve-out for Iowa’s limited medical cannabis market.
In the letters, the department simply quoted the statute of the law and said it “respectfully requests the guarantee as directed by the Iowa General Assembly.”
Here’s the relevant text of the statute:
“The department of public health shall request guarantees from the agencies of the federal government providing funding to educational and long-term care facilities that facilities with policies allowing patients to possess medical cannabidiol on the grounds of the facilities consistent with chapter 124E or allowing facility staff to administer medical cannabidiol to a patient shall not lose eligibility for any federal funding due to such policies.”
After being informed via a court filing that the department had made good on its obligation, Olsen agreed that the lawsuit was no longer relevant. However, he had sharp words for the government over its handling of the matter, namely its decision to send a short letter rather than file a formal application for federal exemption.
“All Iowa citizens are directly injured by the apparent inconsistency with federal drug law, which throws people with serious disabilities under the bus while endangering the general public,” the long-time activist said. “The department knows a better solution and it said so on September 4, 2020.”
“It’s a sad day when state government chooses to ignore federal law rather than comply with it,” he continued in his response to the state’s motion to dismiss. “What a horrible example of scofflaw and disorder. The people of Iowa deserve better.”
Regulators said in a report last year that the department would “move forward with seeking an exception for cannabis as a schedule I substance in Iowa from the DEA, in attempt to minimize conflict between State and Federal Law.” But until last week, it had declined to act beyond saying in February that it was “still evaluating the best way to proceed.”
Last year, DEA rejected a request for an exemption that was submitted by Olsen himself, but he has been hopeful that the result would be different with the state formally involved.
DEA regulations stipulate that the agency’s administrator “may grant an exemption in his discretion, but in no case shall he/she be required to grant an exception to any person which is otherwise required by law or the regulations.”
On a related note, the Hawaii legislature recently adopted a resolution seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference. While the House approved an identical measure last month, it only applied to that chamber. This separate concurrent version cleared the House first before being adopted in final form by the Senate last month.
Read the state and Olsen’s most recent court filings below:
Photo courtesy of Kimberly Lawson.