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The legislature approved a limited cannabis-oil use bill last year; Newton native has a stake in 2015 efforts

Newton native Craig Miller Jr. is the primary caretaker for his wife, Debbie, who has been chronically ill from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome for more than five years. Miller Jr. is one of many Iowa residents hoping to see an expanded medical cannabis program approved by the legislature this year.
Newton native Craig Miller Jr. is the primary caretaker for his wife, Debbie, who has been chronically ill from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome for more than five years. Miller Jr. is one of many Iowa residents hoping to see an expanded medical cannabis program approved by the legislature this year.

When the Iowa Legislature convenes on Monday to begin its 2015 session, thousands of Iowans will be pining to make thousands of things happen.

One of those groups of Iowans will be addressing issues surrounding cannabis — as a medicine, and not as a recreational-use drug. A Newton native, whose wife is chronically ill, will be a part of the movement to get cannabis oil, and the medicines that contain it, approved as a more formal program in 2015 by the legislature.

The legislature approved the Medical Cannabidiol Act last year, but when Gov. Terry Branstad signed the bill into law, it really only gave a limited number of epilepsy patients the right to legally possess one drug — and there’s no provision for it to be produced in Iowa, so finding and getting it to the state is tricky business.

Craig Miller Jr., the son of Sue Miller and Craig “Bud” Miller Sr. of Newton, said the 2014 activity and the Medical Cannabidiol Act represent important steps forward in the approach the legislature and governor have taken regarding cannabis.

His wife, Debbie, suffers from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which affects collagen and connective tissue, and has left her with chronic pain and fatigue. However, aside from avoiding possession charges, the 2014 legislation did little to make medicine more accessible in Iowa.

“It would be really tough to follow every state’s laws to get the medicine into the state legally,” said Miller Jr. “The system just isn’t there. And most states won’t accept any kind of card from another state. Places that require patients to register want them to stay in the state, and not take the drug across state lines.”

The 1992 Newton High School graduate and current lab technician for Underwriters Laboratories’ Newton facility is one of many Iowans who is hoping legislators take even more action on medical cannabis than they did in 2014.

Miller Jr. is hoping the assembly propose and approve a more complete program for either Cannabidiol or cannabis oil in general. Monday, the Iowa Pharmacy Board recommended legislators reclassify a marijuana extract that has little of the chemical THC, making it easier to use legally for treating epilepsy.

He said the movement of chronically ill patients and their families and caretakers is completely separate from the marijuana changes associated with Washington State and Colorado.

“Most of us (in the medical cannabis movement) aren’t interested in legalizing marijuana for recreational use,” Miller Jr. said. “In fact, it’s not about getting government out of the way. If anything, we’re more interested in letting government intervene and set up and run a program. We’re not talking about a mild painkiller. We’re talking medicine for epileptics with severe symptoms.”

Debbie was diagnosed in 2006 at the height of an extremely successful sales career with Nebraska Furniture Mart. She qualified for full federal disability benefits on her first try, which Miller Jr. describes as a rare success; the Creston native has days when she is barely mobile.

Debbie said there’s no guarantee any cannabis extract or oil would ease her symptoms or make anything more manageable. However, she’d like to see the legislature at least give chronically ill patients the opportunity to try out cannabis as an alternative.

“I don’t want to be taking so many opiates,” Debbie said. “Some of the medicines almost make my symptoms worse in ways. I feel like I’m not living life.”

While she doesn’t usually have obvious symptoms, Miller Jr. said, his wife can dislocate a rib simply by sneezing, and has dislocated her shoulder while rolling over during sleep.

“The thing is, she doesn’t look sick,” Miller Jr. said. “The winters are worse, because the cold makes it tougher for her body. Some of the meds she takes are to combat the side effects of other meds, so cannabis oil or something like it might replace one or more medicines, with reduced overall side effects.”

Miller Jr. said he realizes the large lobby of the pharmaceutical industry won’t quickly step aside and allow natural herbs and small growers to simply take over.

However, he sees Cannabidiol and other medical cannabis efforts as new, untapped markets for those established companies. Iowa legislation regarding marijuana and cannabis dates back at least as far as the 1970s.

The legislature petitioned the federal government in 1996 to “remove federal prohibition” from marijuana for medical purposes. Miller Jr. said he’s willing to go to great lengths to help get medical cannabis going in Iowa, but he realizes other illnesses and causes might be able to gain greater traction with the legislature.

“The epilepsy folks have really taken the lead, and has a larger group,” Miller Jr. said. “And multiple sclerosis is a known cause. Ehlers-Danlos is often mis-diagnosed, and even Crohn’s disease and ALS are more widely known.”

A Quinnipiac University poll of 1,411 registered Iowa voters, conducted in early March 2014, showed 81 percent support use of marijuana for medical purposes.

“I don’t want to get high,” Debbie said. “In fact, I don’t want drugs at all. I want medicine. There’s another realm to marijuana plants that legislators need to understand, and if they had a close family member that might be helped by something new, they might listen closer.”

Miller Jr. said it might not matter to him which disorder or application gets wide-reaching cannabis approval first. Once the oil is introduced to the general public as a larger component of treatment, he’s confident it would soon be approved for more applications.

“Leaders who are worried about potential drug abuse often haven’t seen things like my wife struggling to crawl up a flight of stairs,” he said. “Those folks (patients with other ailments and their caregivers) go through the same hell my wife and I go through, and, in many cases, a much worse hell.”

Contact Jason W. Brooks at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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