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Iowa Senate Considering House Bill To Allow More Potent Medical Marijuana

marijuana plants
Katarina Sostaric
IPR file
Marijuana plants at MedPharm Iowa in Des Moines.

A proposal that would allow Iowa dispensaries to sell more potent medical marijuana products to registered patients advanced Monday in the Iowa Senate after it passed the House last week.

It removes the 3 percent limit on THC (the chemical that gets people high) in individual products and replaces it by allowing a patient to purchase up to 25 grams of THC in a 90-day period.

Lucas Nelson is general manager at MedPharm, one of Iowa’s two medical cannabis manufacturers.

“That 3 percent cap severely limits what we are able to do from a manufacturing perspective,” Nelson said. “It requires us to fill products with extra filler—things that do the patient absolutely no good—to get to that 3 percent cap.”

Nelson said the bill will allow MedPharm to make products containing much more THC than what is currently available, but that does not necessarily mean they will. He said the first step is to keep the amount of THC in products the same as it is now, while reducing fillers to end up with a more potent medicine. He added that could make medical marijuana more affordable.

“We do have significant concerns with the THC content that’s allowable in a 90-day period,” said Kellie Paschke, a lobbyist for the Iowa Peace Officers Association. “We think 25 grams, for lack of a better word, seems a little high.”

The Iowa Behavioral Health Association, which represents addiction treatment providers, is also opposed to the new THC level.

Supporters of the bill say current law caps THC in individual products, but there is no limit to how much THC a person could legally consume in any amount of time. The change being considered by lawmakers would allow dispensaries to sell products with a lot more THC, but it puts a limit on how much THC a person could legally consume over 90 days.

The bill provides for a process to waive that limit for patients who have a terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than one year.

It also expands what kinds of health care providers are allowed to recommend patients for a medical marijuana card by including nurse practitioners and physician assistants. And it removes a ban on people with certain felony convictions participating in the program.

Several advocates said Monday they think the medical marijuana program should be further expanded.

Nelson said PTSD should be added as a qualifying condition. He also said the 25 gram THC limit will be enough for many patients, but not all of them.

Sally Gaer, the mother of a daughter who uses medical marijuana to treat epilepsy, asked for a patient and caregiver to be added to the program’s state advisory board. She also said patients should not have to get recertified each year.

“So many medical conditions, they’re not going to change,” Gaer said. “And they need access to the medicine that they need. So annual recertification is a burden.”

The Republican and Democrat on the Senate panel expressed support for some of these ideas, but they advanced the bill Monday without suggesting changes. They said they did not want to jeopardize an agreement with the House of Representatives.

“I really hate to muck it up with all of these good ideas and then have the House turn us down,” said Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant. “We’ve got something that the House has agreed to 96 to 3.”

House Republican responds to criticism from advisory board member

After the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted for this proposal last Tuesday, the Des Moines Register reported a member of the medical marijuana advisory board resigned because she said the board’s advice was misrepresented.

Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, previously said the bill came from recommendations from the board.

But the board voted last year to recommend maintaining the 3 percent THC cap because the program is so new. Dispensaries opened December 1, 2018.

Klein said Monday on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River the bill was based on discussions with a few members of the board—not the board as a whole.

“In discussions with them…we recognized the challenge of meeting compliance when we’re basing it on percentage and not weight,” Klein said. “At the end of that meeting, we had not landed on an exact gram amount.”

He said the 25 gram limit was reached after discussions with the Department of Public Health and Democrats in the House.

The bill would have to be approved by a Senate committee by the end of this week to remain eligible this year.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter