Just days ago, state and local officials converged on a dead-end road in southwest Cedar Rapids where they found the masterminds behind a planned cannabis cultivation, processing and distribution operation. They had them surrounded.
So, naturally, they all shook hands, exchanged pleasantries and made small talk. There were speeches and hearty congratulations. Later, officials grabbed shovels to break ground. OK, actually, it was a pile of gravel.
“We’re so pleased a company of this quality and this commitment is in our city,” said Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, who was one of roughly a dozen overcoated city leaders and state lawmakers who showed up on a cold, gray December day.
The company is Iowa Relief, and it’s going to grow and process medical cannabis, also known as marijuana, in a 5,000 square-foot facility on 26th Avenue Court SW. The outfit will produce cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive cannabis derivative, for distribution at five dispensaries in Iowa.
There clearly was no time to wait for some ceremonial groundbreaking. Heavy equipment already was moving dirt all around us. The facility is expected to start cultivating its product in March to meet a distribution deadline of July 1.
Cedar Rapids not only welcomed Iowa Relief, the city wooed the company and helped in its effort to get a state license, one of only two. “We’re thrilled you’re here,” said Mayor Brad Hart.
It’s worth stopping to consider how remarkable this is.
Just five years ago I wrote a column lamenting how medical marijuana was still a punch line at the Statehouse. Even advocates and families of Iowans seeking relief from chronic illnesses, with heartbreaking stories to tell, couldn’t shake lawmakers’ skittishness.
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State Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, even traveled to California in 2010 to lampoon how easy it was to get a medical marijuana prescription for hemorrhoids. LOL, Clel.
Now, elected leaders are gripping and grinning for cannabis candids. Progress, to be sure.
“That’s no small thing. That’s huge,” said state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, a longtime advocate of legal medical cannabis who spoke at the groundbreaking.
And yet, Iowa’s actual medical cannabis program is agonizingly small. Too small to do much good.
The program, approved by legislators in 2017, permits Iowans who suffer from nine medical conditions — including cancer, AIDS, Crohn’s and Parkinson’s diseases — to obtain cannabidiol products with levels of THC, the mind-altering chemical in marijuana, up to a 3 percent limit. There would be five dispensaries and two manufacturers.
It sets up a Medical Cannabidiol Board to oversee and recommend changes to the program. The board includes eight physicians and one law enforcement official, all appointed by the governor. The current board includes four members of the Iowa Medical Society, which lobbied against creating the program and still opposes state programs. There are no patients on the board.
The cannabidiol board forwards its recommendations to the Iowa Board of Medicine, which also can recommend rule changes. Last week, the medical board recommended expanding the list of conditions to include ulcerative colitis and adding more inhalable and vaporable products.
Still, it’s among the nation’s most restrictive programs and least helpful to sick people. Just over 660 Iowans have been issued cards allowing them to buy cannabidiol remedies in Iowa. For many more, tight limits on THC and a prohibition against “whole plant” remedies make the program largely useless.
Surely, the Legislature could help. It has the power to lift the THC cap and add many more conditions to the list.
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Bolkcom says a bill expanding the program along those lines likely could pass the Senate with a bipartisan majority. But the House is another story.
“It’s like pulling teeth,” Bolkcom said.
In the House, cannabis critics, including Reps. Chip Baltimore, who didn’t seek re-election. Baudler, who retired, and Walt Rogers, who was defeated, will no longer be around next session. But House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, who has long opposed a broader program, will be running the show once again.
Is she interested in expansion?
“We established the state system with a board of medical professionals and law enforcement who provide us with recommendations to expand or improve our program,” Upmeyer said in a statement emailed to me. “They are not suggesting any dramatic changes at this time. They are the experts and we will make changes based on their study and recommendations.”
In November, the Medical Cannabidiol Board rejected recommending raising the THC cap in favor of more waiting and seeing. That likely suits the speaker and the do-nothing caucus just fine.
So while millions of Americans in other states have access to the cannabis treatments of their choice, in varied forms and strengths, Iowans are tied up in red tape, at the mercy of legislative inertia.
But back at Iowa Relief’s groundbreaking, the masterminds are convinced Iowa will come around to expanding cannabis access and helping more Iowans. They’re betting millions of dollars on it.
“From our experience, we’ve seen growth in every state’s program,” said Patrick Doherty, senior operations associate for Acreage Holdings, Iowa Relief’s parent firm.
But if not in Iowa, there may be more dead ends ahead.
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