Four questions with the leader of Iowa's new medical marijuana board

'Iowa is trying to be careful but compassionate how they roll this out'

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DES MOINES — A new state advisory panel charged with helping implement an expanded medical marijuana law in Iowa is trying to balance the demands of an expedited timeline with a go-slow desire to avoid pitfalls that may accompany the experiment to widen the approved uses of cannabidiol.

“I think the state of Iowa is trying to be careful but compassionate how they roll this out,” said Mike McKelvey, a Mason City police captain who was Gov. Kim Reynolds’ choice as chairman of Iowa’s Medical Cannabidiol Board, which was created during the legislative session earlier this year.

The board — consisting of McKelvey as the law enforcement representative and eight experts in various medical fields — has been tasked with helping develop a plan to set up a state-sanctioned system of growing and dispensing marijuana-derived cannabis oil and to widen the variety of medical conditions for which doctors could prescribe lower-strength cannabidiol to patients.

“There’s a lot of angst from some parents or patients who have been unable to get this legally in the state and they want to get it because it has apparently had significant beneficial impacts on their children who have seizure disorders or other issues and they’re very overanxious to get this,” McKelvey said.

“At the same time, I think I and the other board members will try to learn from how some other states may have implemented the process — either too hastily or without checks and balances just to make sure things don’t fall through the cracks or important things are missed. It’s kind of new, uncharted territory for Iowa but I think we’ll look at other states and try to at least give it a decent shot and hopefully make some good suggestions moving forward.”

Several years ago, former Gov. Terry Branstad and the Legislature agreed to decriminalize possession of cannabis oil purchased out-of-state for treatment of chronic epilepsy. The new law allows Iowa doctors to prescribe cannabis oil for treatment of more than a dozen chronic and debilitating conditions and provides for the creation of no more than two businesses to grow marijuana and produce medical cannabidiol and no more than five businesses to sell it.

Q: Licensing deadlines are Dec. 1 for the manufacturers, April 1 for the dispensaries and availability of products for purchase by December 2018. Is that timeline too aggressive?

A: I suppose it depends who you ask. If you were a patient and wanted to get this stuff legally in Iowa, it’s probably not soon enough in their opinion. But I think Iowa is trying to make sure that the rules and regulations and sustainability of this process is in place before we move forward. I know some of the ideas here in selecting a manufacturer or a dispensary is that they are going to be sustainable long-term to be reliable in producing, providing enough product for the patients that need it.

Q: What are you looking for in terms of the new operations?

A: Making sure the internal process is reliable. By Iowa law, the THC content can’t be more than 3 percent. So, just making sure it’s a reliable product and is it what they say it is. How much they can produce? Will they be able to make enough to take care of the patient load in Iowa? Timeline? I don’t know how fast they can grow and produce this. Also, the security controls — are they going to monitor their inventory, are they going to have security systems or security guards or whatever in place to control access and loss or theft, and then also employee monitoring? Obviously, you would have to have credible, law-biding employees in place versus some illegal operation. So there’s going to be a lot of that checks and balances that I think the board and the Department of Public Health will look at to select up to two manufacturers.

Q: From a law enforcement perspective, do you have any trepidation about expanding into this area?

A: When you look across the country and the trend toward medical marijuana, marijuana legalization or decriminalization — obviously it’s a growing trend and we’re only talking about CBD oil here, we’re not talking about edibles or the leafy stuff that you smoke. We know as law enforcement that there is some interest in Iowa to look at these other forms, but in law enforcement we also know from looking at our own drug seizures that most of the marijuana coming into Iowa is from these external states, especially the ones where it’s legal because there’s a lot of diversion of medical or legal marijuana that’s coming into Iowa and being sold illegally for other purposes. All of this stuff is a concern. I think CBD is probably the least of the major concerns. When you’re comparing leafy marijuana and edibles to CBD, I think CBD is probably a nice, safe way to start looking at this if there’s going to be a broader discussion on marijuana in general. I think we’re kind of getting our toes in the pool on CBDs and just kind of assessing that first before we take a big jump and go to the leaf or edible variety.

Q: Former Gov. Branstad always expressed concern over unintended consequences associated with a creeping acceptance of marijuana. Do you share that concern?

A: “Like I said before, I think Iowa is trying to be careful but compassionate — doing this carefully to make sure we’re not going to let something slip through the cracks that may impact Iowa negatively down the road. There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there that the public assumes the marijuana today is the same marijuana from back in Woodstock or that their grandparents may have smoked. What we’re seeing today is that the marijuana from the ‘60s and ‘70s was probably under 5 percent THC, and kind of the average street value of marijuana today is closer to 20 percent THC. There’s also some genetic engineering going on of marijuana, some of the stuff that wasn’t around back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so there are some concerns out there and I think it wise to move slowly in this area.

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