Eastern Iowa Cities Embrace Medical Marijuana

Photo Credit: James MacDonald

Safe, legal cannabis products may soon be coming to a dispensary near you.

State regulators are considering applications for medical marijuana dispensaries across the state, including one each in Cedar Rapids, Coralville and Iowa City.

Five dispensary licenses could be granted later this year by the Iowa Department of Public Health, part of the state’s fledgling medical marijuana program approved by state lawmakers last year.

We are encouraged to see strong interest in offering medical marijuana in Eastern Iowa, and even more pleased our local officials are supportive of the prospective businesses.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart submitted a letter to the state in support of MedPharm’s application to open a dispensary here.

“I believe MedPharm Iowa would act as a partner with the city of Cedar Rapids in achieving our goal of becoming a city that supports residents’ health needs while providing economic development that will make Cedar Rapids a desirable place to live,” Hart wrote.

Hart, a registered Republican, offers a refreshing take on the issue. As drug laws have eased across the nation, some elected officials elsewhere have been hesitant to embrace the change.

Coralville Mayor John Lundell also wrote a letter in support of the dispensary application in his city. Iowa City officials say they also have been in touch with a prospective dispensary operator, though a request for support came too late to meet the deadline.

In order to address the misguided stigma surrounding medical marijuana, it’s imperative for political moderates like Hart and Lundell to take a stand in favor of medical freedom. Cedar Rapids and Coralville voters can be proud their mayors are doing their part.

However, the latest developments also highlight a few glaring problems with Iowa’s medical marijuana program. The 2017 law is much better than its 2014 predecessor, which did not allow for production or distribution of cannabis products, but it remains one of the most restrictive such policies in the country.

The law only allows for two production licenses, and MedPharm was the only applicant. Since the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, in Iowa products is capped at 3 percent and the number of eligible health conditions is limited, some advocates worry few patients will see relief under the program.

State-mandated limits on the number of legal marijuana producers and dispensaries may have been a necessary compromise to getting the bill passed, but they also are questionable public policy. Along with large licensure fees, the system all but guarantees large corporations will dominate the industry.

Those excessive pay-to-play policies diminish competition in the marketplace, to the detriment of patients and consumers. Even if MedPharm is able to develop high-demand products, it’s difficult to see how patients in 99 counties will be adequately served by just five dispensaries.

High regulatory hurdles were put in place by conservative lawmakers who are worried medical marijuana is a front for recreational marijuana. Perhaps they are in denial about the fact that illegal recreational marijuana is already available throughout Iowa, it’s easier to access than medical products, and it actually makes you high. Nobody will switch out their pot stash for a fraudulent cannabidiol card.

Some other critics say they are concerned about the friction between state and federal drug laws, especially in light of Trump administration Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to lift the Obama administration’s laissez faire enforcement policy on state marijuana programs. Yet even Sessions recently agreed his office only has resources to go after large illegal drug operations, which Iowa’s medical marijuana program has no risk of becoming.

There is plenty to criticize about Iowa’s heavily restricted medical marijuana program, but it offers something to build on. Now that cannabis products are being produced in the state, it seems unlikely state policymakers will turn back the clock.

Iowa’s overdue experiment with medical marijuana is underway. In time, we suspect Iowans will agree the program is not a threat to Iowans’ well-being, but a boon.