Staff Columnist

The biggest Iowa marijuana stories from 2019

From Gov. Reynolds' veto to CBD crackdown, it was a discouraging year for cannabis advocates

FILE PHOTO: A thriving marijuana plant is seen at a grow operation in Denver, Colorado December 31, 2013.  REUTERS/Rick
FILE PHOTO: A thriving marijuana plant is seen at a grow operation in Denver, Colorado December 31, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

Most states are making good progress toward reasonable drug laws. Iowa is not.

It has been a frustrating year for cannabis reform advocates in Iowa. A few promising developments were coupled with troubling signs that meaningful change is not on the horizon in the Hawkeye State.

• A setback for sick Iowans.

Iowa’s medical cannabis program remains one of the worst in the nation, covering relatively few medical conditions and offering heavily regulated products that don’t provide adequate relief to many patients.

The Iowa Legislature struck a good bipartisan deal to increase the amount of THC allowed in medical cannabis products, but Gov. Kim Reynolds killed the bill with her veto, saying the proposal went too far. A couple weeks ahead of the 2020 session, Reynolds still has not made clear how far she is willing to go on medical cannabis.

The Gazette editorial board wrote in May, “Iowans are desperate for someone in state government to take leadership. So far, Reynolds has not answered that call.” (Reynolds’ veto shows lack of vision on medical cannabis program)

• Iowa violating federal law.

One objection some conservatives raise about expanding Iowa’s medical cannabis program is the fact that it would be against federal law. Problem is, our program is already out of line with the law. Marijuana is classified as a schedule I drug nationwide, making it one of the most restricted substances.

While the federal government is unlikely to start arresting patients who use CBD under Iowa law, there are other tangible drawbacks to this untenable legal situation. Currently, Iowa’s licensed producers and dispensaries don’t qualify for certain federal tax deductions, which drives up costs for patients.

Some cannabis reform advocates, led by Carl Olsen of Des Moines, are asking the state to explore possible workarounds to securing legal status at the federal level. State lawyers and policymakers are reviewing the issue, but no sure remedy has been established.

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Olsen said in August, “The idea that we’re running a program that’s illegal is like something only the mafia could appreciate. It’s bizarre.” (Marijuana remains illegal under federal law — that harms Iowa patients)

• CBD madness.

Cannabidiol, one of the therapeutic substances found in cannabis plants, is growing in popularity, spurred in part by the legalization of hemp in the 2018 federal Farm Bill.

Some advocates took the changing legal status to mean de facto legalization of CBD for over-the-counter sales. Several businesses in Iowa openly sell CBD, even though the attorney general and local law enforcement officials say it’s only legal to obtain for a few select patients under Iowa’s medical program.

A few weeks ago, police in Polk Count arrested a businesswoman accused of illegally selling CBD, underscoring the urgent need for more sensible laws.

I wrote this month, “It is immoral — not to mention a horrible waste of taxpayer resources — to put peaceful people in cages for engaging in commerce with a substance that is no more harmful than baby aspirin.” (Iowa is putting people in jail for the crime of non-toxic pain relief)

• Decriminalization out of reach.

About half the states, where a majority of Americans live, have legal retail marijuana sales, or at least some form of decriminalization. Iowa still threatens large fines and possible incarceration for minor pot charges.

A few bills introduced in the Iowa Legislature would have corrected the situation. Democrats sponsored robust bills for full decriminalization, while a Republican-sponsored bill would have reduced first-time possession to a simple misdemeanor.

None of those bills cleared the Legislature, proving that Iowa politicians are behind the times and out of step with public opinion on this issue.

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I wrote in January, “If legislators don’t act, they may soon pay a political price for their inaction.” (First look at 2019 marijuana bills in the Iowa Legislature)

• Slow progress on hemp.

There was at least one piece of good news for cannabis reform in Iowa. Following up on the 2018 Farm Bill, the Iowa Legislature passed a law to establish a limited hemp production program.

State agriculture officials recently submitted their plan to license and regulate hemp producers for federal approval. Depending on the timing of the review process, hemp might be set for planting in the 2020 growing season.

But potential legal pitfalls lie ahead, thanks to excessive federal regulations. One farmer in Minnesota was ordered to destroy his crop this year after it was found to have excessive levels of THC.

I wrote in August, “Hemp farmers will be subject to a unique list of rules and regulations. I hope we won’t make them criminals along the way.” (Legal hemp could make farmers into accidental criminals)

• Freedom in Illinois.

The other positive development for cannabis in Iowa came from the other side of the Mississippi River.

Illinois passed a law this year establishing a full retail marijuana program, accessible to anyone age 21 or older. Dispensaries are set to open in January, putting marijuana within easy driving distance of the Iowa border.

While it will remain highly illegal to bring drugs across the border and possess marijuana in Iowa, law enforcement officials will be impotent to stop it. You can expect patients who are poorly served by Iowa’s medical cannabis program to risk their freedom for relief in another state.

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Illegal marijuana from Illinois is better than the status quo, but it’s not a permanent solution.

I wrote in May, “The idea of elderly Iowans with chronic pain driving across state lines to obtain natural pain relief — from a drug with zero known overdose deaths in all of world history — should disgust and embarrass all of us.” (Neighboring states could make Iowa’s weak cannabis program obsolete)

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

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