Health

Iowa medical marijuana on sale for first time Saturday

State's expanded program opens option for more patients

The MedPharm Iowa Dispensary Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, in Windsor Heights, Iowa.
The MedPharm Iowa Dispensary Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, in Windsor Heights, Iowa.
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After more than a year of preparation, state officials and business leaders will officially kick off Iowa’s expanded medical marijuana program Saturday, opening the door to more Iowans seeking relief from their chronic conditions.

Even as Saturday marks the first day products will be made available in Iowa’s cannabidiol program, it comes with concerns the program still is too restrictive to have much impact.

Max Freund / The Gazette

Throughout the week, officials at the state-licensed dispensaries were preparing for the program launch, a step that has been long anticipated for officials involved in the industry since then-Gov. Terry Branstad signed off on the expansion in May 2017.

“It’s been a ton of work, but it’s been an incredible experience for us. So far things have gone as planned, and we anticipate that for opening Saturday,” said Aaron Boshart, director of operations for Iowa Cannabis Co., the company managing the dispensary location in Waterloo.

Doors will open by 8 a.m. Saturday for patients to purchase the program’s products — developed by MedPharm Iowa of Des Moines, the first cannabidiol manufacturer awarded a license by the state.

Products will be available to Iowans with specific medical conditions at five dispensaries — in Davenport, Waterloo, Windsor Heights, Council Bluffs and Sioux City.

The Windsor Heights dispensary is located in Polk County, where more than 100 of the 499 active state cards have been issued, according to the Office of Medical Cannabidiol.

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Officials of MedPharm, which manages the Windsor Heights location, said they are expecting a large crowd Saturday morning — and they say their patient numbers will only continue to grow.

Hundreds more Iowans are expected to join the program in the coming months, said Lucas Nelson, general manager of outsourcing services for Kemin Industries, MedPharm Iowa’s lead consultant

“It is a good number,” Nelson said. “We definitely know there are still a couple hundred more in the pipeline.”

MedPharm also manages the Sioux City dispensary. The locations in Council Bluffs and Davenport are managed by Have a Heart Compassionate Care.

Available MedPharm products include capsules, cream and tinctures made up of four different formulations, each that vary on the CBD (cannabidiol) to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) concentration ratio.

THC offers more painkilling properties, while CBD is an anti-inflammatory chemical.

A typical 30-day supply, depending on the product, can cost between $30 to $130.

A second marijuana manufacturer, Iowa Relief, was selected for the state and is expected to introduce products by July 1. That company, a subsidiary of New Jersey-based Acreage Holdings, will build its facility in Cedar Rapids, at 1420 26th Ave. Court SW, off Wilson Avenue and 12th Street SW.

Read more about new medical marijuana products in Iowa

MedPharm, one of two licensed distributors of medical marijuana products in iowa, announced Wednesday that it will be producing three products: creams, capsules and tinctures.

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Acreage Holdings, according to a company spokesperson, has begun the project and officials expect the facility to be operational “toward the end of the first quarter.”

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Products are available only to those with specific medical conditions — such as cancer, seizures or untreatable pain — that must be certified by their primary care physician. Only then can a patient or a caregiver be issued a registration care from the Iowa Department of Transportation — an identification that allows them to purchase from the dispensaries.

For individuals dealing with chronic conditions, such as 64-year-old Urbandale resident Connie Norgart, the expanded program is a welcome option. She was diagnosed in 1989 with post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects polio survivors years after recovery.

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Norgart takes opioid medication to deal with the chronic pain and weakening muscles, but the pills were a concern, given their potentially addictive nature.

So she turned to cannabis about seven years ago, she told The Gazette during a pre-opening visit to MedPharm’s Windsor Heights dispensary on Wednesday.

Three puffs on a marijuana joint three times a day is enough to relieve her pain.

“Why should I continue with the opioids when I can find something that doesn’t have any side effects compared to what I’m dealing with now? I’ve had a lot of complications because of the side effects over the years,” Norgart said.

She added that she’s experienced gastrointestinal bleeds because of her years on an opioid prescription.

She hopes to join Iowa’s cannabidiol program in the near future. However, Norgart’s primary care physicians will not certify her medical condition, a crucial step that all patients must take card to participate in the program.

Officials involved in Iowa’s expanded cannabidiol program say hesitancy from physicians, as well as its restrictive policies, could stall the momentum.

Across the state, 325 practicing physicians have certified their patients for the program as of Nov. 16.

“Until we get more doctors that at least know how this works and are willing to talk about it, then there’s going to be a limit on the program. There’s no way around that,” Kemin Industrie’s Nelson said.

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Companies involved with the program say they plan to advocate for less-restrictive policies during the upcoming legislative session, particularly surrounding the 3 percent cap on THC on the products.

The cap makes production cumbersome and more costly, Nelson said. In addition, some patients may have to buy higher amounts to receive the desired effect — compounding concerns some officials have that this program only will be available to those that can afford it.

Due to federal restriction, medical marijuana cannot be purchase through electronic payment methods — meaning patients have to carry cash to walk away with cannabidiol.

But even given these potential hurdles, patients are cheering the move as a step in the right direction.

MedPharm and other businesses involved in the program are confident expansion is possible — but only if restrictive policies are changed and more physician groups come onboard with medical marijuana as a treatment option.

“This is a great step toward providing access to Iowans,” Boshart of Iowa Cannabis said. “But the industry as a whole, including the (Medical) Cannabidiol Advisory Board (within the Iowa Department of Public Health), agree an expansion of the program is necessary to reach more Iowans with more conditions.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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