As Iowa’s first medical marijuana production facility opens, severe restrictions remain on the program

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Illustration by Jordan Sellergren.

Iowa’s still developing medical marijuana program reached an important milestone on Thursday, as MedPharm Iowa held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its Des Moines facility.

“It’s about the patients, the kids, the patients who are going to benefit from these particular products,” Dr. Christopher Nelson, MedPharm’s owner, said at the ribbon-cutting. “We know from the science that’s involved that there’s real benefits to be had — and that these benefits can be realized from products that can be grown right here in the state.”

The Iowa legislature legalized the use of cannabidiol to treat certain medical conditions in 2014, but didn’t approve either production or sale of the oil derived from cannabis until three years later. MedPharm received the state’s first license to grow marijuana and process it into cannabidiol in 2017.

Sales of cannabidiol to people with registration cards issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health will begin in December at five state-licensed dispensaries.

Iowa’s medical marijuana program has sharp limits on both the only product it offers — cannabinol — and who can access it. The governing body set up by the legislature, the Iowa Medical Cannibidiol Advisory Board, has been widely criticized for refusing to recommend changes to the program.

Iowa put greater restrictions on who can qualify for a registration card than almost any other state with a similar program. A doctor must certify a patient has one of the following “debilitating medical conditions”:

• Cancer (with severe or chronic pain, nausea or severe vomiting, cachexia or severe wasting);

• Multiple sclerosis with severe and persistent muscle spasms;

• Seizures;

• AIDS or HIV (as defined in Iowa Code, section 141A.1);

• Crohn’s disease;

• Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS);

• Any terminal illness, with a probable life expectancy of under one year (if the illness or its treatment produces one or more of the following: severe or chronic pain, nausea or severe vomiting; cachexia or severe wasting);

• Parkinson’s disease; and

• Untreatable pain

And even if a patient qualifies, the cannabidiol available through the program may not be of much help. State law limits the amount of THC in the oil to three percent, which minimizes the cannabidiol’s effectiveness. No state sets a lower THC limit than Iowa.

A proposal in the Iowa legislature to eliminate the THC cap died during the last session, when the Republican-led Senate refused to consider the bill. The state’s strict THC cap came up during the second debate between Gov. Kim Reynolds and Democrat Fred Hubbell earlier this month.

The candidates were asked, “If elected would you support a bill that raises the cap on THC in oils sold in Iowa dispensaries?”

Hubbell answered first.

“Yes, I would definitely sign that,” he said. “Because we need to do everything we can to give Iowans access to quality, affordable health care … This is an area where actually we can make decisions that help people get access to health care.”

Hubbell said that during the campaign, senior citizens around the state had asked him to expand the program, saying they’d rather take cannabidiol, and other types of medical marijuana, than prescription opiates.

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“So, let’s give the people the treatment, the support, that they need, and increase the percentages,” he concluded. “And let’s broaden out the definition of illnesses that qualify for it.”

When it was her turn to answer, Reynolds said she would leave any decision to the advisory board.

“I would support the process that’s already in place,” she said. “The legislation that passed put a board in place that would deal with the very issues you’re talking about.”

In June, Iowa Relief, LLC, was awarded the state’s second license to manufacture cannabidiol. The company plans to open a processing facility in Cedar Rapids next year.

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