A quick guide to cannabis

Photo by Zak Neumann

The debate around marijuana can get messy, but the smoke starts to lift when you understand the science and logistics.

What’s in a plant?

Cannabis plants are chock full of chemical compounds — about 400. Sixty of these, called cannabinoids, are unique to the Cannabis genus. The most famous are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

THC is the illegal stuff (for Iowans, anyway). It’s psychoactive — it’ll get you “high” — and it’s what The Man is looking for when you take a drug test.

CBD is legal in all 50 states, in some form, and can be found in both marijuana and hemp (non-THC, less-CBD-potent) plants. CBD will not get you high, but it’s responsible for much of the medicinal, therapeutic properties associated with weed.

Iowa legislators started regulating CBD products in 2014 with the passing of SF 2360, the Medical Cannabidiol Act; further filings passed in May 2017 allow for use of CBD to treat certain debilitating medical conditions (listed near the end of this article).

How does CBD work?

We all have an endocannabinoid system, which means our bodies are programmed for cannabis (cue a Bob Marley tune). Receptors run throughout your body, ready to bind to cannabinoids like THC and CBD.

Because this system is far-reaching, CBD works its magic from head to toe. Studies show the compound can provide “neuroprotective” qualities, including fighting Alzheimer’s, trauma, seizures and nerve inflammation. A 2015 study credited CBD with slowing the progression of certain cancers.

CBD can also be taken for pain, or, when used with opioids, help reduce the negative side effects of the highly addictive pain relievers. By itself, THC is a more effective painkiller than CBD, but Iowa law currently allows no more than 3 percent THC in any medicinal marijuana products — not enough to really feel the effects.

Cannibidiol can even help you come down if you get “too high” on THC, according to some scientists. The best recreational marijuana is purported to have a 1:1 balance of THC and CBD. They call it the entourage effect, but it’s essentially this: cannabinoids work best as a team.

How do you use it?

CBD, extracted from cannabis plants, can be taken orally, rubbed on the skin in lotions or oils, inhaled as a vapor or administered intravenously.

Are there side effects?

No side effects are officially recognized, but the Iowa Department of Public Health lists fatigue, diarrhea, changes in appetite, dry mouth and low blood pressure as possibilities. Studies are also too few showing the effects of CBD on women who are pregnant and breastfeeding.

Where do I get CBD?

CBD in small amounts can be purchased anywhere — so long as retailers have their papers in order, and police don’t get carried away on busts. Stores with valid over-the-counter CBD products available are limited and ever-changing.

If you’re looking for serious relief from CBD, you’ll need a Medical Cannabidiol Registration Card, for which qualifications are pretty tight (though activists are advocating for an expansion of the program to include more medical conditions and higher permitted levels of THC). Once you get your card, you’ll be able to solicit one of the five dispensaries opening across the state.

What is the process for getting a Medical Cannabidiol Registration Card?
Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

You must be 18 or older, a permanent Iowa resident and have a qualifying debilitating medical condition:

  • Cancer with a probable life expectancy of under one year with severe or chronic pain; with nausea or severe vomiting; or with cachexia or severe wasting
  • Any terminal illness with a probable life expectancy of under one year with severe or chronic pain; with nausea or severe vomiting; or with cachexia or severe wasting
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS) with severe and persistent muscle spasms
  • Seizures, including those characteristic of epilepsy
  • AIDS or HIV
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Untreatable pain

You and your health care practitioner must fill out the application at the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) website. Your provider needs to certify your diagnosis and confirm they offered you explanatory information about cannabidiol from the IDPH, and will reevaluate your condition on an annual basis.

Include a copy or your ID and one document establishing your permanent residency in Iowa, pay a fee of $100, submit and wait for approval.

If you’re under 18, you’ll need a primary caregiver to apply for the card. The fee for this application, found in the same PDF, is $25.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 241.