Health

Medical marijuana manufacturer says Iowa law expansion could bring new products and patients

Law would remove THC cap, softens pain definition

Lucas Nelson, general manager of MedPharm Iowa, speaks to the media after an event at the company’s manufacturing facility in Des Moines this past October. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)
Lucas Nelson, general manager of MedPharm Iowa, speaks to the media after an event at the company’s manufacturing facility in Des Moines this past October. (Matthew Putney/Freelance)

A measure to expand Iowa’s medical marijuana program will open the door to more patients and new products to help treat them, according to the state’s medical cannabis manufacturer.

In the last days of the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers approved a proposal to expand aspects of the medical cannabidiol program, including patient access and the type of providers who can recommend treatment.

“If you look at the bill in its entirety, it is very clear that it is patient-focused,” said Lucas Nelson, general manager for MedPharm Iowa of Des Moines.

MedPharm Iowa was the first company awarded a state license to manufacture cannabidiol products. Its products went on sale for the first time Dec. 1 at five state-certified dispensaries, in Davenport, Waterloo, Windsor Heights, Council Bluffs and Sioux City.

The latest proposal — passed on the final day of the session — removes the 3 percent cap on tetrahydrocannabinol, or the psychoactive component of cannabis known as THC.

Instead, the bill limits the amount of medical cannabis a patient could have to 25 grams over a 90-day period.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has not said if she will sign the bill into law.

Nelson applauded removal of the cap, saying it makes it easier for patients to get the dosage they need without taking excessive amounts of the product, which can be cost prohibitive.

In addition, it will allow MedPharm to develop vapor products.

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“Vapor is fast acting,” Nelson said. “It won’t last as long over the course of the day — maybe an hour, maybe less or more for some — but it will take effect within minutes.”

Vapor would be ideal for chronic pain patients, Nelson said. Some of the patients experience sudden, exponential increases in pain from certain activities and need a fast-acting supplement to their daily dosage.

Under the 25-gram limit, Nelson estimates, about 90 percent of MedPharm’s patients still would get the dose they need in their cannabidiol products, which can be used for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, seizures and ALS, among others.

The cap could impact cancer patients, chronic pain patients and those dealing with terminal illness.

“We’ll learn as the program grows how many patients are left out,” he said. “I am confident at least where program stands, we will be able to treat many of our patients, if not all.”

Language in the bill also changes its current definition of “untreatable pain” to “severe or chronic pain” — a less cumbersome definition that more providers should be confident about, Nelson said. This change likely would allow more providers to comfortably certify chronic pain patients to receive medical cannabis products.

As of April 18, more than 2,500 patients have been issued registration cards by the state — nearly 60 percent of whom qualify under the “untreatable pain” condition, according to the Iowa Office of Medical Cannabidiol.

Edward Mitchell, chief operating officer for Have A Heart Compassionate Care, also applauded this change in the legislation. The Seattle-based cannabis retailer operates the dispensaries in Davenport and Council Bluffs.

“It really opens the door for more people to get help,” Mitchell said.

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The legislation Iowa lawmakers approved this past week also allows physician assistants and nurse practitioners to recommend patients for the program — a necessary step Iowans must take before they are awarded a license by the state.

This is a significant point for rural Iowans, who may not have regular access to a physician in their region, or for Iowans who typically see nurse practitioners or physician assistants for their regular primary care.

According to the Iowa Office of Medical Cannabidiol, more than 600 health care providers have certified patients for the program by April 18.

Since products went on sale Dec. 1, Mitchell said Have A Heart Compassionate Care’s dispensaries in Iowa have lost money “for every month we’re doing work here.”

The program still is too restrictive, he said, but the company has taken this model on in states such as Iowa, which is just venturing into the medical cannabis field.

“We have to do that as a business,” Mitchell said. “We have to let them see the benefits (of cannabis) until the stigma is lifted.”

The company also operates in states that allow recreational use, which enables it to generate a profit, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he expects lawmakers to continue expanding the program as more Iowans see positive results.

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“Any move ahead is better than no move,” Mitchell said. “What we’ve seen as far as legislative changes in other states, it’s a step-by-step process.”

A second manufacturer awarded a license by the state to produce medical cannabis is slated to complete construction on a facility in southwest Cedar Rapids later this year. Iowa Relief, a subsidiary of New Jersey-based Acreage Holdings, must have products available for sale by July 1.

Acreage Holdings did not return requests for comment.

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

Erin Murphy of the Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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