Iowa Regulators Recommend Marijuana Task Force Be Formed To Explore Federal Exemption For State’s Medical Program

An Iowa regulatory board has voted to recommend that the legislature create a legal task force to explore seeking an exemption protecting the state’s limited medical cannabis program from federal interference.

At a meeting of the Iowa Medical Cannabidiol Board last week, activist Carl Olsen proposed the task force, which he said should bring legal experts together to “carefully review the state, federal and international drug laws to come up with an application for an exception” under federal statutes.

Olsen has long been pushing the state to submit such an application, and the legislature did pass a bill in 2020 that required the state to seek the protections. But following months of delay, the advocate filed a lawsuit against the governor last year to compel the state to move forward with the application, and one state department did subsequently take steps to reach out to federal agencies about the process.

Board member Robert Shreck said at last week’s meeting that Olsen “thinks that the state can obtain an exemption from the restrictions on cannabis and, as far as I can tell from reading what he’s done, and he’s been very persistent about this, I think he’s correct.”

“This is the pathway to proceed to do this,” he said. “It’s been done half-heartedly by some parts of our government…at least, it hasn’t gone forward and been successful. But I would whole-heartedly support Carl’s recommendation. And I would propose that the board make that recommendation.”

Owen Parker, bureau chief the Medical Cannabidiol Board at the Iowa Department of Public Health, made a motion to vote on including Olsen’s task force recommendation in the board’s annual report to the legislature, and it passed unanimously.

It’s another modest win for Olsen, whose earlier lawsuit against the governor generated headlines and seemed to motivate the public health department to send letters about a cannabis law exception to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Education.

In 2020, 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.”

Relatedly, the Hawaii legislature adopted a resolution last year seeking an exemption from DEA stipulating that the state is permitted to run its medical cannabis program without federal interference.

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Back in Iowa, the board separately voted to recommend to the legislature that it passes legislation to exempt medical cannabis products from the state sales tax and decouple cannabis taxes from a federal code known as 280E that precludes businesses from making tax deductions if they sell a Schedule I controlled substance like marijuana.

At the beginning of the year, Iowa Democratic senators released the text of a joint resolution to put the question of cannabis legalization before voters on the state’s ballot, but that did not ultimately advance.

Sens. Joe Bolkcom (D), Janet Petersen (D) and Sarah Trone Garriott (D), who first unveiled their marijuana reform plan last year, had said that inaction on the issue in the GOP-controlled legislature meant they needed to pursue the alternative route to end prohibition.

A bill to decriminalize cannabis possession did clear an Iowa Senate subcommittee early last year, but it also stalled. Another Senate panel separately approved a bill to reduce medical cannabis patient registration costs last year.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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