Lake Park grandmother advocates to change Iowa's medical cannabis law
LAKE PARK, Iowa | Over a year ago on New Year's Day, Jeri Goodell was caring for her grandson, Garrett, when the toddler started gagging.
Soon his face turned blue.
Goodell, a registered nurse, was terrified. She called 911.
Garrett, now 3, was born with a congenital heart defect and a genetic condition that causes bones in his skull to fuse together. It took nearly a year for doctors at three different hospitals to also diagnose Garrett with intractable epilepsy, seizures that can't be controlled well or at all with medication.
Garrett's seizures last anywhere from three to five minutes. The blond-haired, blue-eyed boy, who loves swimming with his dad and singing songs from the Disney movie "Frozen," has suffered as many as three seizures in one day.
An injection of Valium administered during a seizure, Goodell said, causes Garrett to fall into a deep sleep for several hours. When he wakes, she said his flaccid muscles prevent him from walking.
"He has been on four different trials and combinations of medicines," she said. "We've been so hopeful that he'll be seizure-free and then our hopes are dashed when they start in again."
Goodell thinks medical marijuana could stop Garrett's seizures, but her family has no way of obtaining cannabidiol oil for him. The substance, which is free of the mind altering ingredient Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has been legal for Iowans suffering from intractable epilepsy since May but the way the state's law is configured prevents them from legally purchasing it.
Goodell is posting on Facebook to raise awareness about Garrett's plight. She hopes Iowa legislators will consider making changes to the law so he can access medical cannabis.
"The reason that I am passionately advocating for medical cannabis is because seizures and epilepsy make a family feel so helpless," she said. "The medication that have been prescribed for Garrett and so many don't work very well."
NOWHERE TO GO
Iowa is one of 23 states that have decriminalized cannabidiol oil for medical use.
Gov. Terry Branstad signed the Medical Cannabidiol Act into law May 30 at the urging of parents who believe the oil, which is taken by mouth or rubbed into the skin, can reduce the frequency of seizures and in some cases eliminate them.
The law requires patients with intractable epilepsy to get a written recommendation from a neurologist who submits that recommendation to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH). The IDPH then permits the Iowa Department of Transportation to issue a cannabidiol registration card to patients who are at least 18 years old or, in the case of a minor patient, a primary caregiver.
As of Tuesday, Polly Carver-Kimm, communications director for the IDPH, said six people had been approved for cannabidiol registration cards.
Iowa's law, unlike other states, doesn't create regulated, in-state marijuana manufacturers.
Goodell said she has traveled to Minnesota to attend state health department meetings about medical cannabis, which will be available to residents diagnosed with a qualifying condition beginning July 1. Iowans like Garrett won’t be able to buy it.
Iowa patients can travel to Colorado to purchase marijuana and marijuana products from a licensed retail shop but they can't legally take it out of the state. Anyone caught traveling with marijuana through Nebraska, which is between Colorado and Iowa but where the substance is illegal, faces possible arrest.
The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies marijuana and its components as a Schedule I drug, meaning it is illegal and not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Goodell said she knows people who have driven to Colorado and brought medical marijuana back with them illegally. She said her family has not.
"Am I tempted? Oh yes, for Garrett's sake very much so," she said. "Will I? No. I can't do that."
In December, the Iowa Board of Pharmacy voted 6-0 to recommend that state legislators reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug.
Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics asked the same of the DEA in order to facilitate medical marijuana research.
Nebraska will weigh legislation to legalize medical marijuana this year. A bill introduced by State Senator Tommy Garrett, R-Bellevue, if passed, would create a cannabis program for residents suffering from various debilitating medical conditions.
State Sen. Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said making changes to Iowa's Medical Cannabidiol Act isn't a topic of conversation in the senate chamber. Bertrand broke with his party last year to support limited legislation he said he thought would help people like Garrett.
"I completely feel for these parents and these other people who have ailments, but at the end of the day a bill was brought last year. It was a compromise bill. We were all told that this would fix the problem," he said. "I'm just not sure if there's a stomach this year to get back into this issue."
The FDA hasn't approved any drug product containing or derived from marijuana as a safe and effective drug to treat any condition, although it says it supports research into the medical use of marijuana.
Bertrand questions why the state legislature has to "play doctor, FDA and regulator."
"If cannabis did all of these things the free market would be engaging in it. That's the debate. Why are we taking this out of the regulatory process which then provides safety for people's children?" he said. "How can a doctor prescribe a product that has no backing from the federal government or from any agency or any testing that shows safety and efficacy?"
Goodell said she will continue advocating for her grandson and others who she thinks could benefit from medical marijuana. She said her social media posts are being viewed by thousands of people.
"It's got me excited," she said. "I've been regularly asking people to please contact their lawmakers. I'm hoping people do that."