DES MOINES — Medical cannabis can be grown and sold in Iowa and can be used to treat more ailments under a program expansion signed into law Friday by Gov. Terry Branstad.
The new law overhauls Iowa’s three-year-old medical cannabis program, which critics contended was too restrictive because it provided no legal path for Iowans to acquire the medicinal byproduct of the marijuana plant and covered treatment only for epileptic seizures.
A key advocate for medical cannabis expansion called the new program a step in the right direction while still falling short of reaching more ailing Iowans.
“I’m thrilled, really. I’m thrilled,” said Sally Gaer of West Des Moines, who co-founded a medical cannabis advocacy group and has a daughter with a rare form of epilepsy. “We’re hugely ahead of where we were in 2014 (with the original program). Now, we can have growth and production and testing and distribution in the state. So this is huge.
“It’s a huge step. It’s not everything we wanted, but 2014 wasn’t everything we wanted, either. It’s a huge step.”
Among the key provisions in Iowa’s new medical cannabis program:
• Allows for the establishment of up to two state-licensed medical cannabis manufacturers in Iowa.
• Allows individuals to obtain medical cannabis from neighboring states with similar programs.
• Adds ailments that can be treated with medical cannabis, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, AIDS or HIV, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and more.
• Establishes a medical cannabidiol board that can make recommendations to state lawmakers regarding further expansion or changes to the program.
“I recognize medical research continues to investigate the efficacy of medical cannabidiol,” Branstad said in a statement issued Friday. "We sympathize with the families that have a loved one that might benefit from treatments that include the use of this product, and for those reasons, I have signed (the legislation) into law."
Advocates have expressed concern that the program’s restriction on product potency will limit the number of Iowans who could be helped.
The new law says medical cannabis must contain no more than 3 percent THC, which is the psychoactive element in marijuana that produces the high. Experts say products with 3 percent THC cannot produce a high.
However, Gaer said 3 percent THC likely is too low to help people with pain related to some ailments.
“I think the THC cap is very prohibitive,” Gaer said. “People with cancer and chronic pain, anti-inflammatory (needs), colitis, Crohn’s, those people all need more than 3 percent THC. So that’s one of the major problems with the bill right there.”
That restriction could limit the number of Iowans who attempt to register for the program, which could limit sales potential and thus interest in becoming a manufacturer.
Gaer said she is hopeful the creation of the advisory board will help ease the THC restriction and add conditions that could be treated.
“Hopefully, moving forward, we can get a program that can help more Iowans,” she said.