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Governor Kim Reynolds plans to continue to work with the legislature to find a compromise on medical marijuana.

Des Moines Register

Iowa’s medical marijuana program sustained multiple losses last week as one of its manufacturers temporarily shut down operations and two of its dispensaries closed permanently.

That means many Iowa patients will now have to travel further to purchase products. 

It could be a year or more before the state is able to refill the void left by the two shuttered dispensaries, according to the Iowa Department of Health. 

“It’s a devastating blow to patients first and foremost, especially there in the southeastern and southwestern sides of the state,” said Lucas Nelson, the general manager of MedPharm Iowa, which runs two of the remaining three dispensaries and the state’s sole operational manufacturing facility. 

On March 30, Have a Heart Compassionate Care closed its two Iowa medical marijuana dispensaries in Council Bluffs and Davenport, leaving the state with only three of its five dispensaries in operation.

Have a Heart’s ownership company, Harvest Health & Recreation, did not respond to a request for comment by the Des Moines Register. According to the Quad-City Times, the company said it was not economically feasible to continue operations

On April 3, Acreage Holdings Inc., the parent company of Iowa Relief, announced it would temporarily close its facility in Cedar Rapids. The Iowa Relief facility is one of two manufacturing facilities in the state and the more recent of the two to open

That closure, first reported by the Cedar Rapids Gazette, is related to “the significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and other uncontrollable factors that have greatly shifted the cannabis landscape,” according to a company news release. 

Iowa Poll: Most Iowans support expanding medicinal cannabis and legalizing recreational marijuana

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Iowa Department of Public Health spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kimm said Iowa Relief has told the state it will be assessing its situation weekly, as well as looking into whether it will remain in the state beyond May 2. 

Carver-Kimm said the state will be releasing a request for proposals for two new dispensary licenses soon. But it could take more than a year for two new dispensaries to be fully operational, she said. 

The more than 4,300 patients and approximately 700 caregivers registered for Iowa’s program can still purchase products at Iowa’s other licensed dispensaries in Sioux City, Waterloo and Windsor Heights. 

Other Iowa manufacturer calls closures a ‘devastating blow’

Iowa’s medical marijuana program celebrated its first anniversary in December. State law allows the use of cannabidiol that has no more than 3% THC, the compound in marijuana that causes a high. Up to two in-state marijuana growers and processors can distribute to up to five state-approved dispensaries, under the law. 

Of the three remaining dispensaries, two are owned by MedPharm Iowa, which also runs Iowa’s remaining operational manufacturing facility in Des Moines. 

Nelson said MedPharm had taken an interest in purchasing those two dispensaries when Have a Heart expressed interest in divesting its licenses last fall. Now that the state plans to go out for a new request for proposals, he said the company may apply for the two licenses.

On a larger scale, Nelson said he believes the closures add more questions to the sustainability of Iowa’s program. MedPharm Iowa has long advocated for an expansion of the program, including more health conditions people can purchase the products for and a higher cap on the allowable amount of THC in the products.

“Unfortunately, at a really challenging time, the program does seem to be really, really struggling under the weight of the restrictions and the difficulty just in access for patients,” he said.

In Iowa, dispensaries continue to function through coronavirus outbreak

The state Office of Medical Cannabidiol has established recommendations for accessing products during the pandemic, including curbside pickup of medications at dispensaries. Other recommendations include submitting applications for cards online, consulting with physicians via telemedicine and working with the Iowa Department of Transportation to receive new cards via mail. 

Carver-Kimm said the Iowa Department of Public Health has seen monthly registrations remain steady. 

Nelson said MedPharm’s dispensaries at Windsor Heights and Sioux City remain open for curbside delivery and are continuing to do consultations over the phone. At its manufacturing facility in Des Moines, the company continues to grow plants and formulate products while abiding by social distancing guidelines. 

“Especially up in Sioux City, there’s been a couple times when we’ve had no more than two to three patients that have made it all day,” Nelson said. “It’s really all helter-skelter, kind of all over the place, and that’s made planning and trying to be prepared a little bit more challenging.”

The Iowa closures come as some medical marijuana companies are taking cost-cutting measures nationwide. 

The same day it announced its Iowa closure, Acreage announced several other measures, including a temporary furlough of 122 employees, temporary closures of dispensaries in Maryland and North Dakota and a temporary closure of Form Factory operations in California, Oregon and Washington.

“Although we are facing difficult times, I remain optimistic about the U.S. cannabis industry and Acreage in particular,” Acreage Chair and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Murphy said in a news release. 

But it’s currently unclear what, if any, role the coronavirus or wider business environment played in Iowa’s two dispensaries closing. 

Could Iowa Legislature still take action on medical marijuana this year? 

Iowa’s legislative session remains on pause, but advocates for an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program say it’s still an issue they plan to fight for when the session reconvenes.

The next move belongs to the Iowa Senate. The House last month passed a bill that would replace the 3% THC cap with a limit of 4.5 grams per patient in a 90-day period, which is the amount currently recommended by the state’s Medical Cannabidiol Board.

“Right now my No. 1 priority, personally, is to get the expansion of medical cannabis passed and sent to the governor, ” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, who has been working on a separate medical marijuana proposal in the Senate. 

Last year, the Legislature had passed a bipartisan expansion of the state’s medical cannabis program that would have put the THC limit at 25 grams over 90 days, but Gov. Kim Reynolds vetoed the bill. The governor has said the state needs to move cautiously in increasing the cap.

Zaun’s bill this year would have put the limit at 25 grams, the same amount Reynolds vetoed last year. But Zaun said he now plans to use the House bill as the legislative vehicle moving forward, although he hasn’t given up on advocating for an increase in the THC limit. 

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, an Iowa City Democrat who has been advocating for an expansion of the state’s program, said he’s not optimistic about the chances of a bill this year.

Bolkcom worries a 4.5-gram limit could be the “nail in the coffin” for the program, and he said will encourage others to vote against it if that’s the compromise. He said he believes the recent facility closures are casualties of the state’s restrictions. 

“We need another 15 to 20 dispensaries, we need to add another half-dozen to 10 different conditions that are approved in other states, we need to strengthen the medicine — these are things we need to do that successful programs are doing,” he said. 

Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at irichardson@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.

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