December 18, 2014

Group will push legislature for medical marijuana law

Sally Gaer (file photo)

Sally Gaer (file photo)

A group of Iowans announced a campaign Tuesday at the state capitol dedicated to promoting regulated access to medical marijuana for patients suffering from a variety of medical conditions. Lawmakers passed, and the governor signed a very limited bill into law that allows the use of cannabis oil for patients with chronic epilepsy.

Sally Gaer is the mother of a child with the form of epilepsy and now is a member of the group Iowans 4 Medical Cannabis. “We have more folks who would like access to cannabis as medicine to use for their medical conditions…they’ve been in contact with us and so we decided to form this group, and it encompasses more than intractable epilepsy,” Gaer explains.

Founding members of the group include Easter Seals of Iowa, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Iowa Chapter; Epilepsy Foundation of North Central Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska; Epilepsy Families for Medical Cannabis.

Gaer says one of their objectives is to change the classification of marijuana from a schedule 1 designation. “Schedule 1 says that marijuana has no medicinal value, which is quite untrue and inaccurate,” Gaer says. The also want to create a Medical Cannabis Advisory Committee within the Department of Public Health. “That are physicians and pharmacists and scientists and law enforcement and drug enforcement, so everybody is on the same page,” Gaer explains. “And they would make the decisions as far as processing, growing and dispensing the cannabis medicine in the state so that the legislature is not making every little minuscule decision.”

One of the arguments against approving medical marijuana is that critics say that will then lead to approving recreational use of the drug. “None of us are really for recreational marijuana in any way, shape or form,” Gaer says. “My story has been all along, they already get it. They can walk outside and in five minutes get their hands on illegal recreational marijuana, to their detriment. I still don’t have access to medicine for my daughter.”

Gaer says even with the law allowing Iowans with intractable epilepsy to treat their conditions legally with medical cannabis oil, Iowans still cannot safely, affordably, and legally get medical cannabis in other states. She says part of the problem is that the state-issued medical cannabis “cards” needed are still not available. And although 23 states have legalized the sale of medicinal cannabis, it’s sold almost exclusively to in-state residents. “Drug abusers still get it, and the people that need it still can’t,” she says.

Gaer says the extra support could help get something more done in the upcoming legislative session, and that’s why they are making their support know now. “I think there are some legislators working and figuring out what this should look like, and if we can get a bill introduce right away this session and get work going on it, so we are further ahead than we were last year,” Gaer says.

Last year’s legislature was working with the knowledge that many members would be on the ballot in the fall, and she hopes with the election over, there’s more chance of getting the issue moving. “You know, that was what we heard from the get go last year, well this is an election year, this probably won’t happen. And our thought was exactly it’s an election year this should happen,” Gaer says. “So, hopefully we won’t have that oh my gosh what will this do to the election in the fall if I do anything about this, hopefully it will more about helping people.”

Gaer says medicinal marijuana is widely supported by most Iowans, as a 2014 Des Moines Register poll found that 59 percent of Iowans support its use. A follow-up poll by Quinnipiac found that 81 percent of Iowa voters support legal access to medical cannabis under a doctor’s treatment plan.


Iowa ranked in top 10 for time spent volunteering

Volunteers package Meals from the Heartland.

Volunteers package Meals from the Heartland.

A new federal report ranks Iowa 7th in the country for the percentage of residents who spend time volunteering.

Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency in charge of volunteering and service. She notes the most popular volunteer activity in Iowa involves donating food or preparing meals for the needy. That’s also the case for most other states.

“In Iowa, it’s 32-percent, so that’s very high and that’s one of the top ways people can help,” Spencer says. “I think, in general, Americans don’t like the idea of anyone going hungry.” Utah is once again ranked as the top state for volunteerism. Idaho, Minnesota, Kansas, Wisconsin and Nebraska round out the top six, followed by Iowa.

Spencer says there are a number of reasons why states with a lot rural communities tend to have higher volunteer rates. “For example, low commute times…so, it’s easier to get around. There are higher densities of nonprofits, higher education levels, and high levels of home ownership — that could indicate to us that people are settled in to their community and they really care. They want to make sure their community is strong and vibrant and they want to help,” Spencer says.

The report states slightly more than 1 in 3 Iowans (34.7%) volunteered in 2013. The study also calculated the economic value of those volunteers.  “Of the nearly 800,000 volunteers serving statewide, the value of that is $1.5 billion in economic value to the charities, nonprofits and faith organizations,” Spencer said. Nationally, one in four Americans volunteered last year.

The report found those between the ages of 35-44 had the highest volunteer rate, while those over the age of 65 spent the most time volunteering.



State emerald ash borer infestation hits a new level

Dec-15-2014-EAB-mapState forestry experts say the Emerald Ash Borer has been discovered for the first time in a rural woodland area in 5 southern Iowa counties.

State Forester, Paul Tauke, says the borer infestation was found by a forestry contractor who discovered many dead ash trees in Lucas County. The infestation was also found to have spread into nearby Mahaska, Marion, Monroe, and Appanoose counties.

“We’re starting to see that baseline population where we are not just seeing symptoms and signs, but we’re seeing our first tree mortality on a larger geographic scale,” Tauke says. There are now 18 confirmed counties with an EAB infestation and he the latest discovery marks a new level for the infestation. “I think the take home message probably is is ‘hold on to your seatbelts’ because we’re going to continue to see new EAB infestations and probably more counties at a more rapid rate than we have,” according to Tauke.

Up until now, the infestations had slowly been discovered in a few counties at a time. “(Up to) 2014 we’ve added 13 counties, and now we’ve added 5 counties just this week,” Tauke says. “We’re going to see that population continue to expand and probably see increased mortality of ash trees and increased incidents of new finds.”

There have been some treatments that appear to be helping tree owners protect individual ash trees, but Tauke says those treatments aren’t the answer for large woodland owners.

“For rural landowners, treatment is going to be cost prohibitive in their woodlands,” Tauke says. “However what they can do, is monitor their forest land or their wood lot for the obvious signs and symptoms — the woodpecker flecking, the thinning of the crown — but also what they can do is contact their district forester who can come out and develop a management plan for them.”

He says that management plan can help them get some benefit from the trees before the bugs hit. “If the ash are large enough, they may be able to salvage some of those and get those removed by the lumber industry or loggers. So, there are some options for woodland owners. While treatment is not really a good option, good forest management is always a good option for them to pursue,” Tauke explains. The infestation in southern appears to have been in place for several years and could include miles of trees.

DNR forest health specialist Tivon Feeley says the cost of this infestation will be in the millions before it is over. “We worked with a Forest Service analysis on this a year ago,” Feely says. “We looked at the impact to the forest land owners and wood products industry out there, the and the number that we came up with was 27 million dollars that was an annualized loss over a period of time in Iowa’s perpetual future.”

A statewide quarantine was issued in February of this year restricting the movement of hardwood firewood, ash logs, wood chips and ash tree nursery stock out of Iowa into non-quarantined areas of other states as a way to try and prevent the movement of the beetle.


Story County releases information on arrest of Webster City wrestling coaches

Ted Larson

Ted Larson

The Story County Sheriff’s Office has released more information about the weekend arrests of two Webster City High School wrestling coaches. Fifty-year-old Ted Larson and 52-year-old Terry Nessa are facing felony charges after deputies say they drove a Webster City School District vehicle to a home near McCallsburg in rural Story County, broke into the home and assaulted the home’s owner.

A news release issued today states the men went to the home Saturday night looking for Larson’s wife, 44-year-old Tara Larson, and she was at the home. Deputies said the home owner, 45-year-old Lyndal Olson, had severe lacerations over both eyes and was taken to a hospital. In addition to assaulting Olson, Larson and Nessa allegedly damaged property in the home, vandalized two of Olson’s vehicles and broke out windows in a barn.

Ted Larson is the head wrestling coach at Webster City High School and serves as the district’s director of transportation. Nessa is a volunteer assistant coach. Both men were still being held in the Story County Jail this morning on $40,000 bond. Webster City Schools Superintendent Mike Sherwood says Larson has been placed on administrative leave.


Senator-elect Ernst may stay in Iowa Guard

Senator-elect Joni Ernst in her Iowa National Guard Uniform.

Senator-elect Joni Ernst in her Iowa National Guard Uniform.

U.S. Senator-elect Joni Ernst is eligible to retire from her career in the Iowa National Guard, but she may continue to serve in the military long after she’s sworn in as a senator in January.

“It’s caught somewhere in between,” Ernst said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “I’m going to keep it as is for just a little bit and then likely make that decision probably later this spring.”

Ernst, who joined the Iowa National Guard in 1993 and is now a lieutenant colonel, was a company commander in 2003 when her unit was sent to Iraq. She then commanded the Iowa Guard’s largest battalion, of more than 1,200 soldiers, before recently shifting to serve as a senior officer at the Iowa Guard’s headquarters in Johnston.

“I’m out of battalion command, so the outside time committment is not as much,” Ernst said.

Ernst was off the campaign trail this summer for a week of active duty, then — about 34 hours after being declared the winner of Iowa’s U.S. Senate race — Ernst reported for two days of active duty.

Other members of congress serve in the guard and reserve, including South Carolina Lindsey Graham, who is in the U.S. Air Force Reserves and is a senior instructor for the Air Force Judge Advocate General program. Graham has encouraged Ernst to remain in the Guard. During a campaign swing through Iowa with Ernst in October, Graham emphasized Ernst’s previous role as a batallion commander.

“A military commander is a unique job in the Army. Very few people get it and to be a good commander, you have to bring out the best in those under you who are diverse. They have different political views, different religious views and you mold it into a team, ” Graham told reporters after an event in Des Moines. “…Very few members of the Senate have military experience.”

There is no prohibition against members of the Guard serving in the U.S. Senate. Half a dozen Guard members are currently serving in the House and the newly elected Senator from Alaska is in the Marine Reserve.

“I know there are other ways of doing two-week duties and things like that which might work a little better with my schedule, so we’re still sifting through that with the Guard before I make that decision to retire,” Ernst told Radio Iowa.

Ernst’s husband, Gail, is a retired Army Ranger.

Education Department to end automatic early school start waivers

Department of Education director Brad Buck (left) with Governor Terry Branstad honoring Teacher of the Year Clemencia Spizzirri.

Department of Education director Brad Buck (left) with Governor Terry Branstad and 2015 Teacher of the Year Clemencia Spizzirri.

After years of debate on the issue, the director of the Iowa Department of Education is telling school districts it is going to be tougher to get a waiver to start classes earlier in the fall. State law says schools can start no earlier than the week that includes September 1st, but early start waivers have been routinely granted.

Education Department spokesperson, Staci Hupp Ballard, says they are not doing away with waivers. “The change is that school districts that are interested in pursuing waivers will need to demonstrate evidence of significant negative educational impact as required by law,” Ballard says.

Ballard says the leader of the department Brad Buck issued the notice to the districts after receiving a request from the governor. “The governor requested director Buck’s action on this, but we also want to make sure that school districts, in terms of timing, have plenty of time to make adjustments to their calendars before they submit them to us next spring,” Ballard says.

Governor Terry Branstad has long-sided with the state’s tourism industry on the issue, which argues it loses millions because of early school starts, plus many summer venues lose part of the workforce when high-schoolers return to class. Many of Iowa’s school districts will begin the next academic year before the Iowa State Fair ends, something that has always peeved Branstad who has been a champion of the annual event.

Ballard says the move will have a big impact based on the waivers issued for this school year. “This year, 2014-15, 336 of 338 school districts received waivers, there were just two districts that did not obtain one,” Ballard says. Director Buck sent out the letter today, and Ballard says they are working on the details of what will qualify districts to get a waiver. “Those criteria are under development right now, and we will know more early next year,” Ballard says.

The department has already heard from schools.”So far we’ve heard positive feedback and we’ve heard negative feedback from the districts,” according to Ballard. The State Board of Education voted 5-2 in August against runs that would have modified the start dates. A proposal to change school start dates also failed to make it out of the last legislative session.

Governor’s letter on School Start Date PDF

Education Dept Letter on school start waivers PDF

Five containers for Iowa meth lab cleanup placed in Iowa

The containers are 7’x7’x9’ and are under 24/7 supervision and in locked and secured areas

The containers are 7’x7’x9’ and are under 24/7 supervision and in locked and secured areas

Five massive, metal containers are being placed around the state to help authorities safely clean up meth lab sites. The containers, which have an exhaust system, will be located in areas near Montrose, Clinton, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Council Bluffs.

Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Dan Stepleton will manage the three eastern Iowa containers, which are all being provided by the federal government. He says the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is also paying for small trailers at each site which will be used to haul the hazard materials from the meth lab site to the container. “Then, when the container’s full, we’ll call the DEA and they’ll have someone come and empty the container. The whole bill is paid for by DEA,” Stepleton said.

In addition to making the cleanup of a meth lab less dangerous, the containers will serve as a big cost saver. According to Stepleton, the new containers will save “hundreds of thousands” of local and state tax dollars a year. Previously, local and state agencies had to hire a chemical contractor for the cleanup process.

Law enforcement officers in Iowa discover up to 300 meth labs a year with each one costing around $5,000 to clean up. The five containers are being placed in areas where authorities respond to the highest number of meth labs. Officials hope to install more containers around the state in the future.