Iowa lawmakers are considering several bills to address the many shortcomings in the state’s medical marijuana program. One of the most glaring problems may be the most difficult to fix — two of the state’s five most populous counties have no place to purchase state-regulated cannabis products.
The law approved by Iowa legislators in 2017 called for just five dispensaries counties across the state, offering a narrow set of marijuana-derived therapies to a select few patients with certain medical conditions. Businesses hoping to set up operations in Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids were not selected for the limited number of licenses.
When Gov. Kim Reynolds met with The Gazette’s editorial board last week, I asked her if she thought five dispensaries is sufficient to serve Iowans in 99 counties.
“The market should drive it,” Reynolds said.
That was a perplexing response, since Iowa’s medical cannabis industry does not resemble a free and healthy market in any way whatsoever. The government, not the market, dictates where and how marijuana products can legally be sold.
The barriers to participating in the medical cannabis market are enormous. Would-be dispensaries had to submit detailed plans to the state and pay a non-refundable $5,000 application fee just to be considered for a license. The five that were selected have to pay even larger ongoing fees.
Even though Iowa Code says dispensaries shall be located based on geographical need throughout the state, the results of the licensing process were disappointing for many people who live in Eastern Iowa. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City — the second- and fifth-largest cities in the state — do not have dispensaries. The closest establishments are in Waterloo and Davenport.
Among at least six medical marijuana bills introduced at the Statehouse so far this year, just one would deal with the lack of dispensaries. When I pressed Reynolds about how the market can develop under so much government interference, she pointed to the Iowa Medical Cannabidiol Board the Legislature established to regulate the program.
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“There’s a board, they have a process, and then we have a legislative process. … That’s what they’ve been tasked to do so I would kind of rely on their recommendations going forward,” Reynolds said.
The law allows citizens to petition for new medical conditions to be covered by the cannabis program. As frustratingly slow as that process is, at least it exists. However, when it comes to expanding the program geographically, the law offers little help.
The Medical Cannabidiol Board is charged with “advising” public health officials regarding dispensary licenses and regulations, but there is no mechanism to increase the number of dispensaries without legislative action.
People who live in one of Iowa’s many unserved counties have three options — drive many miles to a licensed dispensary in another town, go without the treatment they want or obtain marijuana products illegally through one of several available channels. Considering the program’s low participation numbers so far, you can bet many Iowans are picking that third option.
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