Iowans seeking marijuana for medical purposes will have another option — albeit an illegal one — when Illinois legalizes recreational marijuana next year.
Marijuana will remain illegal in Iowa, but that won’t stop many people from traveling to Illinois to purchase the drug.
And that could harm Iowa’s fledgling medical cannabis industry.
“I have massive concern about this,” said Lucas Nelson, the general manager of MedPharm Iowa, a Des Moines-based medical cannabis manufacturer.
The company has five dispensaries — Windsor Heights, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Davenport and Waterloo — where it sells medical cannabis products, including oils, creams and capsules.
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In Iowa, medical cannabis patients must have a qualifying condition, receive a doctor’s certification and obtain a state card authorizing them to purchase the products.
Nelson said he worries that some people will opt to bypass Iowa’s strict regulations for easy access afforded to customers in Illinois.
“There is no doubt in my mind that patients will forgo options in Iowa to go to Illinois and bring marijuana back,” he said. „We know people do that already; they’ve been vocal with legislators about it.
“There’s been a failure to recognize that people are suffering, and traditional medicine has left them behind, and they’re going to do whatever it takes to get relief.”
’You’re seriously looking at whether or not this industry survives’
Iowa’s medical cannabidiol act was first passed in 2014 and updated in 2017 to include a manufacturing and dispensary system.
This spring, the Iowa Legislature passed a bipartisan bill that would have further expanded the program, removing a 3% cap on THC — the chemical that makes recreational marijuana users high — for products made and sold in the state.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds vetoed the legislation in May, though, saying the state needs to „proceed cautiously” to ensure any expansion of the state’s cannabis program was „thoughtful and deliberate.”
Democratic lawmakers have called for legislative leaders to convene an interim committee to study options for revising the state’s medical cannabis program.
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State Sen. Joe Bolkcom and Rep. John Forbes, both Democrats, released a letter Tuesday asking Republican leaders to appoint a committee to study the issue and seek input from advocates, medical experts and others.
Bolkcom said the committee could develop language that could be presented to the Legislature in January.
Earlier efforts to convene a special session to override the governor’s veto failed.
In a statement to the Register last week, Reynolds said she looks forward to „working with lawmakers and the Medical Cannabidiol Board next year to build on Iowa’s current medical marijuana program.”
“However, I don’t support the legalization of recreational marijuana,” she said.
Nelson said he is concerned about the future of the medical marijuana industry in Iowa.
“If nothing happens again in 2020, you’re seriously looking at whether or not this industry survives,” he said. “Having nothing happen would demonstrate that our decision-makers, as a whole, are not interested in providing options to people, which would be incredibly sad.”
’They have been taking the risk for some time now’
“What happened in Illinois will be a benefit to Iowa cannabis patients,” Bolkcom told the Register.
Iowans with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s and Parkinson’s disease will have easier access to the drug, but those bringing marijuana back to Iowa face the possibility of being arrested.
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“They have been taking the risk for some time now of breaking federal and state law, but I think a bunch of patients will find access to lower cost medicine in Illinois,” Bolkcom said.
“You don’t want people breaking the law to get the care they need. But in the past, I heard lawmakers tell people who were sharing their stories, ‘If it were my family, I’d go to Colorado … to heck with the law.’”
Colorado decriminalized marijuana use in 2012. Residents and tourists can purchase and use marijuana at dispensaries throughout the state.
Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement Assistant Director Paul Feddersen said he expects Iowans will choose to make a trip across the Mississippi River over driving through Nebraska to Colorado.
“It will be really interesting to see what happens,” he said.
The Nebraska Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha reported that marijuana-related arrests in Nebraska increased 11% from 2013 to 2014, one year after Colorado legalized marijuana. Counties along Nebraska’s western border and the Interstate Highway 80 corridor saw the highest rates of arrest.
The study also found a $10.2 million increase in Nebraska law enforcement costs from 2013 to 2014. Once again, counties along the I-80 corridor were responsible for most of the increase.
’We’re going to continue to enforce whatever laws Iowa has’
Feddersen said it’s going to business as usual for the Iowa Department of Public Safety next year.
“We’re going to continue to enforce whatever laws Iowa has,” he said. “Obviously, Colorado is a source state and we’re receiving marijuana from Colorado, but we’d be fools to say it’s not going to come from Illinois.”
Knocking down online rumors, Sgt. Nathan Ludwig of the Iowa State Patrol said there will be no checkpoints along the Iowa/Illinois border.
“The only thing it’s going to do for us is to bring a heightened awareness to drivers,” he said. “We have seen more impaired drivers due to drugs, but we’re not going to set up checkpoints along the river.”
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Dubuque’s Chief of Police Mark Dalsing said that, as with any law changes in a border state, the city will have to monitor the impact.
It’s not uncommon for border states to have conflicting laws. In the past, the states’ laws covering things like firearms, seatbelt use, vehicle insurance, and the use of electronic devices while driving have not been the same.
„We will probably have a period of confusion for community members traveling between the states,” Dalsing said. “We will continue to educate people about the laws on controlled substance as we go, but we will still enforce on Iowa laws, even if the substance was legally purchased in Illinois.”
Dale Woolery, the director of the Iowa Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said it’s too early to know how Illinois’ law will affect Iowa.
“It’s something we would clearly want to monitor,” he said. “We will watch, we will listen, and we will see.”
Gage Miskimen covers news for the Register. He can be reached by phone at 515-284-8234 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Gage on Twitter, at @gagemisky.