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Iowa panel backs allowing more medical marijuana outlets
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Iowa panel backs allowing more medical marijuana outlets

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The Iowa Cannabis Co. location in Council Bluffs.

The board governing Iowa’s medical marijuana program plans to ask the Iowa Legislature to allow the state public health department to decide how many dispensaries for consumers there should be — and where they should be located — rather than restricting dispensary licenses statewide to five.

“It’s well-documented that patients are traveling far distances” to get medical marijuana products, said Owen Parker, chief of Iowa’s medical cannabis office in the Iowa Department of Public Health. “There are plenty of areas of the state that do have a two or more hour drive.”

The board voted unanimously at a virtual meeting Friday on a recommendation to the Iowa Legislature to change the law to give the state health department discretion to decide how many dispensaries are licensed and where they will be located.

This would allow the agency to consider putting more dispensaries in urban areas with a higher concentration of registered patients, while still balancing access by rural patients.

“One of the benefits of putting it in high-concentration areas is competition,” said Stephen Richards, a Spirit Lake pharmacist and board member. “That’s what drives price down most of the time.”

Iowa’s medical marijuana program, created in 2014 and expanded in 2017 and 2020, allows two licensed manufacturers and five dispensaries, which are supposed to be spread geographically around the state. Dispensaries now are located in Iowa City, Waterloo, Des Moines, Sioux City and Council Bluffs.

If new licenses are added, the state would still seek requests for proposals. The soonest new dispensaries could open if the law were changed would be 2023, Parker said.

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To be able to buy medical marijuana products from the dispensaries, patients must have a qualifying medical condition certified by a health care practitioner and a state registration card. According to the public health department, there were over 7,300 active cardholders in Iowa in October.

The Iowa City dispensary, which the Iowa Cannabis Co. opened Oct. 1, was largely responsible for a 15% boost in program sales for October over the previous month, Parker reported. The state’s total sales, excluding sales tax, for October was $615,963, the highest of any month in the year so far.

Nearly two-thirds of the sales in the past 12 months have been products with high THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in cannabis.

Board members, and one person who spoke during the public comment period, expressed concern about websites, such as PrestoDoctor, that allow prospective patients to register for the medical marijuana program and get waivers of the 90-day THC limit set by Iowa code.

“That’s commercialization exactly like happened with opioids, or pill mills,” Richards said.

Parker said telehealth providers licensed in Iowa are allowed under the state’s medical marijuana program. The board did not make a recommendation for changes.

The board also approved recommendations to ask the Legislature to make medical marijuana exempt from sales tax, like other medicines, and allow honorably discharged veterans to qualify for reduced registration fees.

The board also would like to add to its membership a physicians assistant and an advanced nurse practitioner. These professions were newly added to the list of practitioners who can certify a health condition qualifying for the program.

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