Last chance to expand Iowa’s medical marijuana program likely dead in the state legislature

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren.

A final attempt to expand Iowa’s medical marijuana program appears to be dead in the Iowa legislature, after Speaker of the House Linda Upmeyer said she and the rest of the Republican caucus that controls the House are opposed to changing the current law.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee passed a bill on Monday that would eliminate the cap on THC, an active ingredient in the cannabidiol that will go on sale in the state’s five licensed dispensaries in December, and allow doctors to prescribe cannabidiol for any patient they determine it might help. Currently the law caps the amount of THC at 3 percent, and doctors can only prescribe cannabidiol to treat seizure disorders and certain symptoms of cancer.

“With that THC cap in place at 3 percent as it is, it’s going to be extremely difficult for MedPharm to be able to treat the patients the legislature has asked us to treat especially those with severe and chronic pain,” Dane Schumann, a lobbyist for MedPharm, said in testimony before the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

MedPharm is the only company licensed to manufacture cannabidiol in Iowa.

Proponents of medical marijuana have been pushing the state to the lift or raise the THC cap and expand the conditions cannabidiol can be used to treat, as Holly Thayer reported in the most recent issue of Little Village.

Advocates say these changes would help to keep the program afloat financially, provide an alternative to addictive opioids and bring relief to patients who aren’t eligible now, such as those with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Patients with PTSD often struggle with flashbacks, frightening thoughts and intrusive tension.

A recent study by the Rand Corporation, a nonpartisan think tank, offers some support for the claim that increased access to medical marijuana may help reduce opioid addiction. The study published last month by the Journal of Health Economics looked at “the daily doses filled for opioid analgesics among Medicare Part-D and Medicaid enrollees.”

While noting the “relationship between medical marijuana laws and reductions in opioid overdoses is complex,” the study’s authors found “[s]tates with medical marijuana dispensaries experienced reductions in opioid-related overdoses.” They concluded their “findings suggest that broader access to medical marijuana facilitates substitution of marijuana for powerful and addictive opioids.”

Speaking earlier this week, Speaker Upmeyer said Iowa House Republicans did not want make any changes to the law without the recommendation of the Medical Cannabidiol Advisory Board, which is charged with overseeing the state program.

“My caucus feels very strongly about the advisory board,” Upmeyer told reporters. “And so to disregard that and throw it all overboard they would feel that was a disingenuous move.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds also opposes making changes to the law without the recommendation of the board, according to her spokesperson.

The board looked at changes to the THC cap at its December meeting but issued no recommendation. The board’s next meeting is scheduled for May 4, but this year’s legislative session should be concluded by then.

“We’ll be back in January,” Upmeyer said. “Hopefully we’ll have additional recommendations.”

In April 2017, the Iowa Senate approved by a vote of 45 to 5 a bill to expand the medical marijuana program similar to the bill passed the Ways and Means Committee this week. It would have lifted the THC cap and allowed cannabidiol to be used to treat such conditions as PTSD, but those provisions were stripped out of the bill by the House.

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