By Emma Sailor
Iowa City patients who use medical marijuana may be able to get it locally as soon as this year.
Up to two new medical-marijuana dispensaries may open in the Iowa City area following the passage of legislation that will expand Iowa’s medical-marijuana program.
Two Des Moines-based companies, the Iowa Cannabis Co. and MedPharm Iowa, filed applications with the Iowa Department of Public Health to operate dispensaries in Iowa City and Coralville earlier this month. The department will announce its decision by April 1. If awarded licenses, the dispensaries could open as early as December this year.
Although no dispensaries exist in the area at this time, City Manager Geoff Fruin said their operation is permissible under Iowa City Code.
“Dispensary use is permitted in our commercial zoning districts,” he said. “[The dispensaries] already meet the regulations for the space they would be located in. There’s no additional approval needed should they be awarded that license.”
Under House File 524, which was signed into law in May 2017, the list of conditions that may be treated with medical marijuana will include cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDs, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and others.
In addition, formulations containing up to 3 percent THC — the chemical primarily responsible for the psychoactive effects of recreational marijuana — will be made legal under the new law.
This is a significant expansion over the previous law, which restricted access to medical marijuana in the state to THC-free formulations for the treatment of epilepsy resistant to conventional therapies.
Carl Olsen, founder and director of the advocacy group Iowans for Medical Marijuana, said the law is still too restrictive compared with those of other states. Currently, 30 states place no restrictions on the amount of THC allowed in medical marijuana, including those where recreational use of the drug is legal.
“We would like to see the physician and the patient have the freedom to make the decision on whether to use it, and what to use,” he said. “Whatever method they feel is correct should be available to them.”
Bharat Kumar, a UI assistant professor of immunology, said there is not enough research guiding legislative decisions to restrict or expand medical marijuana access.
“Anecdotally, in our clinic, we have folks saying that marijuana does help, but there haven’t been good studies yet that corroborate those anecdotal reports,” he said.
Medical-marijuana use is associated with a number of adverse side effects, including bronchitis and cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, Kumar said.
“There’s a lot of coverage about the benefits of medical marijuana, but there are a lot of risks as well,” he said. “There is not enough high-quality evidence for the risk and benefits for me, as a care provider, to advocate one way or another.”
Bids to open new dispensaries have been met with mixed reactions from local legislators across the state.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart and Coralville Mayor John Lundell both support opening new dispensaries; Iowa City officials have yet to release an official statement detailing their stance on the application.
“If the state awards the Iowa Cannabis Co. a license to operate in Iowa City, we would hope that those who can access their products would benefit from those,” Fruin said. “But from our standpoint, it’s really a state-regulated industry — we don’t have a role in regulating it.”