By Rod Boshart

A small army of never-say-die parents and children -- many in wheelchairs -- impacted by epilepsy flooded the Capitol rotunda Friday to watch Gov. Terry Branstad sign a law giving them access to relief-providing cannabis oil that they didn't think was possible several months ago.

Branstad said he approved the measure to take effect July 1 after consulting with other governors in conservative states who signed similar measures. He said Senate File 236 strikes an appropriate balance of oversight, regulation and empathy in providing narrowly targeted immunity in Iowa for the possession of cannabis oil as a treatment for chronic epilepsy.

"I am elated and so incredibly happy to see the governor put his name down on that piece of paper for this bill. This is truly an amazing day," said April Stumpf of Riverside, whose daughter of nearly two years suffers from epilepsy.

"When you're the parent of a special-needs child, you never give up," added Sally Gaer, a West Des Moines woman whose daughter suffers from intractable epilepsy.

The measure Branstad signed would give prosecutorial immunity to people who possess cannabidiol, a non-smokable oil extract of marijuana with a low THC level to treat seizures. It would require patients or their caregivers to obtain a state-issued registration card to possess the drug and to have a neurologist's recommendation to obtain the license. The act is repealed July 1, 2017.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, credited the tenacity of the mothers who refused to accept naysayers who called the bill dead for the 2014 session for making Friday's bill-signing ceremony possible.

"This was a testament to loving mothers with kids in terrible circumstances and nearly untreatable epilepsy. They became the face of this issue and that's why this issue passed," Gronstal said. "The truth is Iowa is still a place where ordinary citizens can make an impact on decisions."

During the legislative debate, opponents worried that young people who read headlines that Iowa was legalizing a marijuana derivative and would get the wrong impression. Others expressed concern over the lack of FDA approval and potential long-term effects of cannabis oil use. Critics also were concerned that lawmakers next session will be asked to expand access to people dealing with cancer of other painful, chronic conditions.

The law's provision to be eligible to possess and/or use medical cannabidiol would apply only to permanent Iowa residents at least 18 years of age with a written recommendation from a neurologist and registration card for the medical treatment of "intractable" epilepsy may possess and use cannabidiol. No other medical conditions are eligible.

Many parents who attended the bill-signing ceremony said Friday was a first step because now they face challenges of getting an Iowa neurologist's recommendation to take cannabis oil as treatment and then they likely will have to travel to places like Colorado, Oregon or Michigan where the product is legally dispensed.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said he hoped a legislative interim committee will convene later this year to study how the measure is being implemented and explore the possibility of approving cannabis oil as treatment for other chronic conditions, such as cancer and post traumatic stress disorder.

"I do believe there are going to be a lot of challenges for some families because you have to leave the state at some great expense to actually get the medicine. While it's going to benefit some families, I think it's going to be a difficult challenge for others," he said.

Also Friday, Branstad signed bills that will lessen the penalties for people who unknowingly expose someone to HIV and will provide additional tax credits for installing wind and solar energy systems.

The HIV bill changes a 1998 law and imposes a 25-year prison sentences only when someone intends to transmit a disease without a partner's knowledge, making Iowa the first state in the country to repeal and replace its criminal transmission of HIV law.

"Senate File 2297 takes a common-sense approach to transmission of contagious or infectious disease and modernizes Iowa's approach to the transmission of HIV," the governor said before signing the bill. "I know advocates have worked on this legislation for many years and without the tenacity of the advocates and their stick-to-it attitude, this legislation may not have gotten done."

Advocates said the new law better reflects advances in science, medicine and understanding of how HIV is transmitted.

Until now, Iowa has had one of the harshest HIV transmission laws in the country. Under the 1998 law, persons with HIV could face 25 years in prison and inclusion on the sex offender registry if they could not prove they disclosed their status to a sexual partner -- even if no transmission occurred and precautions such as condoms were used.

Under the new law, there is a tiered penalty system, which takes into account whether a person took precautions, whether transmission of HIV actually occurred and whether or not the person intended to transmit HIV.

The new law also adds other infectious diseases to the bill such as hepatitis, tuberculosis and meningococcal disease, which causes meningitis -- so the law is no longer HIV-specific. Finally, it removes the requirement those convicted register as sex offenders, and it will allow people convicted under the old law to be expunged from the registry.

(c)2014 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa)