Public Safety

CBD is illegal - but some Iowa prosecutors not too concerned about enforcement

Owner Alicia Beck shows some of the CBD products she has for sale at Health Hut in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Dec. 24, 201
Owner Alicia Beck shows some of the CBD products she has for sale at Health Hut in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CBD-based products — oils, lotions, cosmetics, candy, additives — seem to be turning up on store shelves throughout the Corridor and elsewhere in Iowa.

That’s even though using or possessing products that contain cannabidiol — a derivative of marijuana and more commonly known as CBD — remains illegal for the majority of people in Iowa who don’t have a state-issued medical registration card.

Since the 2018 Farm Bill removed restrictions on CBD that is derived from hemp plants, Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said there has been some confusion regarding the legality of CBD products.

“And that’s why you don’t have uniform enforcement of the CBD products across the state,” he said.

As far as his office goes, Vander Sanden said prosecuting distributors of CBD products or the people who use them is not a high priority.

“We concentrate our resources on the prosecution the street crimes — especially crimes of violence — and until somebody can show me that these products are harmful, then the prosecution of any technical violations of the law would probably not be a high priority for this office,” Vander Sanden said.

“What seems to be uncontroverted, is that CBD products can have some therapeutic effect for people who use it and it doesn’t seem to be causing any harm,” he continued.

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Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness concurred, saying her office views prosecuting CBD cases fall pretty low on her office’s list of priorities.

“It’s all illegal right now,” she said. “But I expect that is going to quickly change and soon, and I would much rather see our law enforcement agencies focusing on serious and violent crimes than chasing after something that will likely be legal soon.”

Lyness said she’d venture that local law enforcement agencies are on the same page as she.

“From what I understand, they have gone around and talked to the businesses that are selling CBD products and reminding them that they’re illegal, kind of giving them a warning,” she said. “But I don’t believe they are interested in doing much beyond that.”

In some counties, law enforcement officers have directed shop owners to remove CBD products from their shelves, the Des Moines Register has reported.

In Polk County, an Ankeny business owner was arrested for allegedly selling CBD products without a license from the state. The charge was a first for Polk County, according to the county attorney’s office.

“The law makes it pretty clear that any product containing cannabidiol is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance and is illegal,” Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said in a message to The Gazette. “The only exceptions to that classification are FDA-approved medications in Iowa’s medical CBD program. So we’re going to enforce the law until that changes.”

The arrest of Lacie Navin, 33, of Des Moines, came after officers with the Mid-Iowa Narcotics Enforcement Task Force twice purchased products from her business. Navin faces two counts of controlled substance violation and failure to pay tax on an unlawful substance.

Her arrest was a part of a task force investigation of businesses selling CBD in central Iowa that was initiated after complaints had been filed in multiple counties, said Lt. Heath Osberg, spokesperson for the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Finding relief

In Cedar Rapids, a few CBD-dedicated shops have opened for business — including Your CBD Store, which is part of a nationwide franchise. The Health Hut, a longtime health and wellness store located in the Czech Village in Cedar Rapids, has stocked CBD products for about seven years, owner Alicia Beck said.

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Many of her customers have found relief through these products, particularly those dealing with issues related to chronic pain and inflammation, Beck said.

“If they’re looking to enhance their health and be able to live a long, comfortable lifestyle as opposed to living in pain, it’s a nice alternative to prescription medications,” Beck said.

“We have had great success with that.”

The state expanded its medical marijuana program in December 2018, but Beck said some of her customers have found the program to be inaccessible.

Some of her customers don’t qualify under the program’s requirements, she said. Others find it difficult to drive an hour or more to the state-licensed dispensaries to obtain the medication,

So instead, they seek out her store, she said.

Beck, who has owned Health Hut for five years, said she is not particularly concerned about the arrest of Navin, the Ankeny shop owner. She has never had any interactions with local law enforcement regarding the products she sells in her store, she said, but is open to that conversation.

Controlled substance

Iowa law currently defines marijuana as “all parts of the plants of the genus Cannabis, whether growing or not; the seeds thereof; the resin extracted from any part of the plant; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture or preparation of the plant, its seeds or resin, including tetrahydrocannabinols,” according to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.

That’s important because, as CBD is derived from parts of the cannabis plant that are included in the definition of marijuana, CBD is considered marijuana under Iowa law, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said in a statement earlier this year.

Iowa law labels marijuana and its psychoactive component, tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC — as a Schedule I controlled substance, making any product containing CBD or THC a controlled substance under federal statute.

The only exception to that law, according to the Attorney General’s Office, comes with the Medical Cannabidiol Act, which permits the manufacturing and distribution of pharmaceutical grade cannabinoid with a THC level of no more than 3 percent.

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Medical cannabidiol, the attorney general said, only can be manufactured by Iowa’s two licensed manufacturers — MedPharm and Iowa Relief — and distributed to individuals with state-issued registration cards at Iowa’s five licensed dispensaries.

But that doesn’t mean Linn County authorities are going to start targeting local CBD sellers, County Attorney Vander Sanden said, adding that prosecuting people selling or using CBD products isn’t worth the taxpayer money it would cost.

“My legal opinion is that CBD oil that is extracted from hemp is entirely legal, provided it does not contain more than the 03 percent of the psychoactive THC,” he said.

But the difficulty in determining if a CBD product exceeds the legal level of THC is that you can’t tell just by looking at the product — it has to be chemically analyzed in a lab.

“Before we can charge a distributor with selling illegal CBD products, we would have to have the product tested by our crime lab, and we’re being told that our crime lab cannot test these products to quantify the level of THC in the product,” Vander Sanden said.

“That means we’d have to send the product to an outside laboratory — and if that’s the case, then it’d be an expensive proposition to investigate the retailers, and it’d be an expensive proposition to prosecute.”

The same would apply for an individual who was caught in possession of CBD products, the county attorney said. Those products still would need to be tested to build a case.

“It’s just like any other case involving drugs — we have to be able to prove a substance is illegal, and that’s a lot simpler with defined illegal drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine,” Vander Sanden said.

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“When it comes to those substances, we have chemical field tests we can run to prove their identity, but with this CBD it’s an entirely different thing.”

And as the state’s crime labs already are overloaded, Johnson County’s Lyness said she’d rather not waste their time and resources on a product that is not harmful.

“I would much rather have (the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation) processing sexual assault kits or testing substances that are actually killing people,” she said.

“And from my understanding, CBD is a beneficial substance that seems to help a lot of people. It’s not dangerous.”

Comments: (319) 398-8238, kat.russell@thegazette.com; (319) 368-8536, michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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