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You can't buy recreational cannabis in Iowa, but you can legally get high. How?

A man and a woman stand facing another women who is inside a vendor booth at the 2023 Des Moines Arts Festival. The couple is drinking Climbing Kites social beverage.
John Ryan
Des Moines Arts Festival
Climbing Kites made it's debut for central Iowa outdoor music events at the 2023 Des Moines Arts Festival.

Even though cannabis is recreationally illegal in Iowa, products giving just as potent a high are being sold for recreational use in the state. How is that possible?

80/35 tried to have a medical cannabis lounge on-site this summer, but the music festival ran into legal challenges organizing the space. That didn’t stop other vendors from offering THC products at the fest though. From beverages to gummies, the same was true at the 2023 Hinterland Music Festival. It begs the question: what’s up with all the weed stuff?

A man and a woman stand facing another woman who is inside a vendor booth at the 2023 Des Moines Arts Festival. The couple is drinking Climbing Kites social beverage.
Alan Jacobs
Des Moines Arts Festival
Climbing Kites made its debut for central Iowa outdoor music events at the 2023 Des Moines Arts Festival.

First, let’s set the scene. It was Saturday, July 8, and Natalie Dunbar was standing in front of a trailer full of Climbing Kites social beverage in downtown Des Moines, fulfilling orders.

"Straight off the plant, there's nothing added to it," said Dunbar when asked how the product was processed.

There was a long line for Climbing Kites for most of the weekend at 80/35, and it was for sale in the food vendor section of the fest, not alongside alcoholic beverages. The cannabis-infused sparkling water developed by Lua Brewing is free of alcohol, sugar and calories. It's also vegan and gluten-free. The company claims their sparkling water will get you high the same way a recreational cannabis edible would, just slightly faster due to the carbonation.

A quick lesson on what’s legal and what’s not illegal in Iowa:

  • CBD oils and products, made from both industrial hemp and cannabis plants, are legal for anyone to purchase. 
  • You can order CBD products online from anywhere and have them shipped to your house or find them in natural food stores, vape shops and registered dispensaries.
  • However, these products cannot contain THC derived from cannabis plants. (This is important — keep reading for the why.)
  • The only way to purchase products with cannabis-derived THC in Iowa is with a medical cannabis patient ID card, and the products for sale have to contain less than 0.3% THC. 
  • Inhalable flower of any kind are not a part of Iowa’s medical cannabis or consumable hemp program.
  • Vaporized, inhalable products are available as a part of Iowa's medical cannabis program.

So, what’s THC and CBD? Dr. Chantal Rozmus explained at Hinterland.

“THC, Tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive and principal psychoactive component in a cannabis plant. CBD, cannabidiol, is a different chemical property and second most present component in a cannabis plant."

It’s the THC in cannabis products that gives you a “high,” and it’s the CBD that mellows you out.

Let’s jump back to Climbing Kites. This carbonated water that was for sale at 80/35 and the Des Moines Arts Festival contains THC mg levels ranging from 2.5 mg to 5 mg to 10 mg, and comes in a variety of flavors. There’s one more thing about these drinks: they technically contain Delta-9 THC, not “regular” THC. This means the THC in these beverages has been derived using a particular extraction process and coming from hemp (not cannabis).

Now, “hemp” is not necessarily a scientific distinction; it’s a legal one. “Hemp” describes cannabis that contains 0.3% or less THC content by dry weight, according to the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, AKA the 2018 Farm Bill.

Both THC and CBD are present in industrial hemp plants, but at different amounts than cannabis plants, by legal definition. Even though cannabis remains a Schedule 1 substance, the 2018 farm bill removed hemp and hemp seeds from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Controlled Substance List. Because they’re made from industrial hemp, Delta-9 THC products became legal to produce and sell with the signing of the farm bill in December of 2018, by former President Donald Trump. Iowa, along with many other states, is not preventing THC products from sale if they’re derived from hemp.

What's Delta-9 THC?

This is where the part about Delta-9 and Delta-8 labels comes into play. “Delta-9” and “Delta-8” indicate a process by which the psychoactive chemical in the hemp plant, the THC, is extracted into a very pure form. The “Delta” label is only applicable to products derived from hemp. If you were to use this process on a cannabis plant, you’d get a product that is extremely potent, and in states where recreational cannabis is legal you won’t find Delta THC products for sale.

According to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, Lua Brewing holds an active consumable hemp manufacturer registration in Iowa, and that’s how they’re able to sell the new social beverage to anyone older than 21. To reiterate, Climbing Kites is extracting THC (and CBD) from hemp.

"We're having a lot of positive reactions from people that are buying our product, which is really what we want, having a really good option for people that don't consume alcohol, or for people that are in the sober community," said Dunbar.

Getting high at Hinterland

A crowd of people sit look at the stage at Hinterland Music Festival.
Lucius Pham
Andy Krieger with Greene Goods Market and Greenhouses was selling Delta-9 THC gummies at Hinterland 2023.

It’s not just these THC drinks being sold in Iowa. We ran into Andy Krieger with Greene Goods Market and Greenhouses at Hinterland in August. He was selling 10 mg Delta-9 THC gummies, four for $10. He was stationed at the top of the Hinterhill beneath a green banner that read "Gummy Up Delta 9" behind what feels like the only tree at the Avenue of the Saints Ampitheatre in Saint Charles.

Krieger's goal there was to educate people about industrial hemp.

"Industrial hemp is kind of the boogie man, so we wanted to kind of demystify that. So as you see with our booth here, we're about education, and the reason why I have this booth here is simply to get that information out there."

Krieger pointed to signs around his booth including, "Did you know?! Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp on their properties," and "Hemp can replace plastic."

In order to grow and process hemp in Iowa into the edibles he was selling at the fest, he had to secure three levels of licensing, and his property and home are subject to random searches by the DEA. (Side note: Krieger told us that he sat with a DEA agent on the lookout for illegal cannabis products for part of the day Saturday at Hinterland.) One time they even searched his mother’s home. He said the relationships growers have with regulators is positive, and he hopes it stays that way.

"As a grower, we're completely open to having inspectors come in, whether it be the department of agriculture, or the department of inspections and appeals," he said. "We've all kind of learned to dance together versus dancing apart."

 Andy Krieger with Greene Goods Market and Greenhouses at Hinterland in August 2023 talks with IPR's Phineas Pope in his vendor booth. He's wearing a green shirt with his company's logo on the front.
Lucius Pham
Andy Krieger with Greene Goods Market and Greenhouses, based near Jefferson, talks with IPR's Phineas Pope at Hinterland in August 2023.

There’s obviously been a lot of thought put into how to make this all work in Iowa, where recreational cannabis is illegal, as surrounding states are cashing in on tax revenue off recreational marijuana. As far as the music industry is concerned, many see that as a good thing. Businesses like Climbing Kites and Greene Goods Market and Greenhouses create opportunities to feature locally produced products and sell them, which are in growing demand as an alternative to alcohol.

It’s all part of changing audience — and artist — expectations 

According to a recent story in Billboard, venue operators are noticing alcohol sales declining at concerts, particularly shows aimed at Gen Z audiences. A co-authored study from 2020 found that from 2002-2018, the number of college students (ages 18-22) who abstained from alcohol increased from 20% to 28%. And for those who do drink, they tend to consume less than older generations. At the same time, cannabis use increased among college students during the same period, rising from 27% to 31%.

“One of the big trends we’re seeing is that Gen Z doesn’t drink as much,” said Dayna Frank, president/CEO of First Avenue Productions, a concert venue and promotion business in Minneapolis, at the Music Biz conference in Nashville (as reported by Billboard). “They’re either eating edibles before they come or there’s more of a sober, mental health [focus].”

Add on top of that, in many other states, including three bordering Iowa, artists are used to smoking cannabis and consuming THC products at venues. Mickey Davis, the former executive director of the Des Moines Music Coalition and co-owner of Tajali Presents, said he’s even had artists ask for such products in their hospitality packages. That puts promoters and venues trying to route shows in a super uncomfortable position if an artist considers it mandatory.

Climbing Kites has yet to make a debut at a music venue in Iowa, even though it was for sale at the summer festivals in central Iowa. We've also seen it in cans at Up Down in Des Moines. And Octopus College Hill in Cedar Falls sells a THC/CBD/CBG beverage made in Colorado called Hemp Hoplife that offers the same dosages as Climbing Kites.

In case you’re curious after reading all this, Climbing Kites is for sale for $28 for a four pack at Lua Brewing. It’s been sold-out for order online all summer.

Rozmus cautions people seeking medical benefits or healing from these products to consult a doctor about them, especially if you’re taking other prescription medications.

“It’s just good to make sure you’ve done some due diligence. These products aren’t regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration)."

Tony Dehner and Natalie Krebs contributed reporting to this story.

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Phineas Pope is a digital production assistant for IPR's digital team. Phineas grew up in St. Paul, but relocated to Des Moines to attend Drake University majoring in music law. Before IPR, Phineas worked in production at Iowa PBS and the Des Moines Metro Opera.