Staff Columnist

Medical marijuana is coming to Iowa City, but is it sustainable?

Iowa needs more dispensaries, more products and more patients

Iowa's medical cannabis industry has struggled under state regulations. (Dreamstime/TNS)
Iowa's medical cannabis industry has struggled under state regulations. (Dreamstime/TNS)

After almost three years in operation, Iowa’s medical cannabis program finally is coming to the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor.

State marijuana regulators last month granted a license for a dispensary in Iowa City to Iowa Cannabis Company. This will be the first time legal cannabis sales will be permitted in our area, which includes the state’s 2nd and 5th largest counties.

The fact it took this long to get a medical cannabis dispensary in the corridor — and that it only comes at the expense of a failed dispensary elsewhere — is just one of the many glaring shortfalls in Iowa’s young medical cannabis program. If state policymakers don’t expand the program in the next legislative session, Iowa City’s legal CBD store could be a short-term experiment.

Marijuana is one of the most popular substances in the world, with myriad potential therapeutic benefits. Yet Iowa Republicans somehow found a way to turn that into a failing business model.

Iowa’s medical cannabis law passed in 2017 is one of the most restrictive in the country. It permits only five dispensaries across the state, forcing some patients to drive long distances to get their medicine. In the past year, two dispensaries have ended operations in Iowa.

The system designed by Republicans (supposedly the party of free markets) is starved for free-market competition. With newly approved licenses, two companies with out-of-state support will own 80 percent of the state’s dispensaries.

Those two companies — MedPharm with shops in Sioux City and Windsor Heights; Iowa Cannabis Company in Waterloo and soon to be in Iowa City — are good businesses. I don’t begrudge them for their scale, but I do worry their dominance of the market is a sign of bad public policy.

Excessive regulation tends to create concentration in the market. Large, diversified companies are better equipped to navigate complicated legal and accounting issues, and also more likely to sustain short-term losses. There is no room in Iowa for a mom-and-pop medical cannabis upstart.

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“No dispensary in Iowa is seeing enough patients to keep them independently funded,” Iowa Cannabis Company director of operations Aaron Boshart told Gazette news reporter Erin Jordan.

To promote competition, Iowa should consider eliminating or increasing the limit on dispensary licenses. And to sustain existing dispensaries, the state also must expand the pool of patients and allow more treatment methods.

Only about 4,000 patients had active cannabis cards as of the state’s last reporting in August. It’s likely that many more Iowans could benefit from safe and legal access to cannabis, but relatively few conditions qualify for treatment compared to other states, and the available products are extremely limited.

Neighboring states’ marijuana laws show just how bad Iowa is

In strange twist, Iowa is actually doing something right on marijuana reform

Marijuana is one of the most popular substances in the world, with myriad potential therapeutic benefits. Yet Iowa Republicans somehow found a way to turn that into a failing business model. A law passed this year to add a few medical conditions and tinker with legal THC levels was not a significant expansion of the program.

The path to a more sustainable medical cannabis industry in Iowa is not complicated: Let more cannabis businesses operate, and give those businesses more patients and more legal products to sell.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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