Iowa's medical marijuana program loses one-third of patients during coronavirus pandemic

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The number of patients in Iowa’s medical marijuana program fell by one-third during the COVID-19 pandemic because patients couldn’t see their doctors or go to driver’s license centers to get cannabidiol registration cards, officials said.

Iowa averaged about 360 patients per month in its medical marijuana program between June 2019 and March, when Gov. Kim Reynolds asked Iowans to stay home to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, Owen Parker, program manager told the Iowa Medical Cannabidiol Board Friday.

Patient numbers averaged 244 per month for April, May and June so far, he said.

“That is largely due to primary care physicians not being accessible,” Parker said. “Patients could not make those appointments to either become a (medical marijuana) patient or have their application renewed. They are just now starting to be able to restart those visits.”

Iowa Department of Transportation Drivers License stations, where medical marijuana patients get their registration cards, also were closed, except by appointment, during the outbreak. Parker said the DOT mailed cards to patients when they could and the Iowa Department of Public Health worked with the DOT to schedule times for patients to come in for their cards.

Program managers have started to see registration numbers rebound now that more physicians are doing regular appointments, Parker said.

COVID-19 is just one roadblock for Iowa’s medical marijuana program, which saw the departure of Iowa Relief, which had built a manufacturing facility in Cedar Rapids, earlier this month and the closures of two of the state’s five dispensaries in March.

The state has issued a Request for Proposals for the two new dispensaries and plans to issue notices to award licenses on Sept. 7. Two Iowa companies, MedPharm Iowa and Iowa Cannabis Co., have applied to open a dispensary in Coralville. MedPharm operates dispensaries in Sioux City and Windsor Heights, while Iowa Cannabis runs the dispensary in Waterloo.

The state plans to issue an RFP for another manufacturer, Parker said, but the Public Health Department still is deciding when to post that.

“We understand that our licensees decided to leave and we are looking to replace them as fast as we possibly can,” he said.

Companies interested in Iowa’s medical marijuana program have said it won’t take off until lawmakers allow higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound that produces a high feeling.

House File 2589, which the Iowa House and Senate passed, but Reynolds hasn’t yet signed, would remove the 3 percent THC cap and instead replace it with a 4.5 gram THC cap per 90 days. The legislation would remove limits altogether for people who are terminally ill or if a doctor certifies the patient for additional THC.

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