Unlikely source calls for medical marijuana debate 

A 79-year-old longtime member of the Iowa Senate who serves on several corrections-related committees is calling on lawmakers to consider legalizing medical marijuana.

Sen. Gene Fraise, a Fort Madison Democrat, acknowledges that he is an unlikely source for such legislation. Fraise said he is personally undecided on the issue but that he thinks introducing a bill will force a conversation and help lawmakers reach a consensus.

"I've talked to quite a few people who said members of their family were dying of cancer and they can't get relief unless they have this marijuana," Fraise, a 26-year veteran of the Senate, told The Associated Press on Monday. "If that's the case, then maybe we ought to help people."

The Iowa Board of Pharmacy in 2010 recommended state lawmakers reclassify the drug for medical use after holding a series of hearings across the state for testimony on the issue. But lawmakers have done little to act on the recommendation.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, an Iowa City Democrat who has pushed for a medical marijuana program for years, said Fraise's interest is a positive sign but that any legislation on the issue would face hurdles. The politics of medical marijuana are difficult, especially in an election year, and there has been significant resistance from law enforcement. But mainly, lawmakers need to be educated about what the drug can do.

"I think it's just a matter of more people getting a better understanding of the benefits of it," he said.

Last year, Rep. Clel Baudler, a Greenfield Republican and former state trooper, said he traveled to California and received a medical marijuana prescription for hemorrhoids. His intent was to make Iowans wary of what he believed was an out-of-control medical marijuana program.

Sen. Merlin Bartz, a Grafton Republican, said Iowans might not accept such a liberal policy but that most Iowans in the middle of the political spectrum understand that abuse of any drug — prescription, over-the-counter or illegal — is the real problem, not the drug itself.

Bartz, who worked on legislation more than a decade ago in support of a limited medical marijuana program, has no illusions about the resistance his party has to the issue.

"I realistically know that with many of my colleagues and friends in the House and the Senate, that it's kind of a non-starter," he said.

Fraise and Bolkcom said they didn't know how much support a medical marijuana program has among their Democratic colleagues in the Senate, noting that the caucus has not discussed the issue. And even if the bill passes in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 26-24 majority, Fraise doubts the Republican-controlled House would take it up.

"I think it would be possibly something that could be used in elections," Fraise said. "Those crazy Democrats, they want marijuana for crying out loud!"

Fraise said many laws dealing with marijuana have been passed during his time in the Legislature, ones that enhance penalties and drive the corrections population.

Fraise is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee and serves on a justice budgeting committee. He is also a member of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning Advisory Council, the Interstate Compact for Adult Offender Supervision State Council and the Public Safety Advisory Board.

He doesn't want a medical marijuana program to negatively affect society, but noted the drug is not hard to find as it is.

"So if there's a medical benefit for people who are suffering, then we ought to take a hard look at it," Fraise said.

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