Robert Lewis, a businessman from Windsor Heights, advocates for marijuana reform in Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Robert Lewis)
Robert “Lewy” Lewis of Windsor Heights has been in pain since 1974, when he had spinal surgery at the age of 21. To repair a blockage in his spine, surgeons removed eight inches of his vertebrae and then sewed them back on, using about 300 steel stitches.
“I’m a perfect barometer for the weather,” he joked.
He’s 69 now. “I have lived with chronic pain since 1974, to the point where it will bring tears to your eyes — you don’t want to be around anybody,” he said.
The only thing that keeps his pain in check today are cannabis patches that are illegal in Iowa. He is open about the fact he obtains them illegally from Colorado, where recreational cannabis is legal. He is now working with a new group called Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws to expand Iowa’s medical cannabis program.
He still remembers the first time, years ago, he tried a cannabis patch during a trip to Colorado.
“And about an hour later, I was pain free for the first time in my life since 1974. And I was pain free for the rest of the day and I was so giddy that I didn’t even want to go to sleep that night,” he said.
Giddy from relief but not high, he clarifies. He doesn’t get high and he doesn’t smoke marijuana, he says, something he’s often asked. He is able to continue working, and is the owner and CEO of Quester, a market research company based in Windsor Heights.
Lewis lobbied for Iowa’s original medical cannabis law, which was updated last year, but he says it’s time to expand the program. He said it helps a lot of ailments, but not all. And the level of THC that is allowed in Iowa, currently capped at 4.5 grams, is not enough to control his pain.
THC, the short name for tetrahydrocannabinol, is a psychotropic compound in cannabis that is responsible for the “high” that recreational smokers seek. There’s a disagreement in Iowa about how much THC to allow to treat pain and other medical conditions without opening the door to recreational use.
Campaign for Sensible Cannabis Laws isn’t getting into the details of THC levels, says Brad Knott, a longtime Iowa policy consultant who launched the organization earlier this year. Instead, it’s encouraging Iowans to sign a petition supporting “marijuana reform,” without defining “reform.”
While he’s not advocating marijuana legalization, the organization’s web address is freetheweediowa.org. Some of the medical marijuana advocates don’t like the name, Knott acknowledges, but he said the idea is to seek the broadest possible support.
“It’s not to have recreational marijuana or to say that there’s 90% THC in the cartridges or, you know, that the medical program should be able to sell flower,” Knott said. “It’s really about demonstrating to Iowa legislators and the Iowa public that there is strong support out there. And that if they will bring it up for debate, they’re not going to be hurt politically.”
A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll in March 2021 found that 54% of adults in the state favor marijuana legalization for recreational use. That support is up considerably from 2013, when 29% favored legalization.
Knott said a petition on the organization’s website had 1,000 signatures within three weeks of its launch. The petition drive will run though the summer and include in-person efforts in gathering places like county fairs and the state fair. He said the signatures will be organized by political district and party and shared with candidates and elected officials this fall.
“One you have the list, you can do some real organizing,” he said, but no one has ever created such a list before.
Marijuana discussion was off the table this year after several years of debate about medical cannabis in Iowa.
Gov. Kim Reynolds vetoed an expansion of Iowa’s medical marijuana program in 2019 that would have raised the THC limit to 25 grams. In 2020, the Legislature passed a bill that conformed with the governor’s medical cannabis advisory board’s recommendation of 4.5 grams.
Advocates of medical marijuana, including Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Zaun, were disappointed, but Zaun acknowledged the modest update was what was politically feasible.
“I would rather this be a stronger bill, but this is something that has been negotiated,” he said at the time.
Zaun did not return calls seeking comment about whether he will try again to expand the program. He declined to move a Democrat-proposed marijuana legalization measure out of his committee in this year’s session.
Meanwhile, use of Iowa’s program is growing. More than 9,600 Iowa patients currently hold medical cannabis cards, according to updated data from the Iowa Department of Public Health. That’s an increase of nearly 54% since May 2021. Another 2,500 Iowans hold caregiver cards for their children or others who qualify.
That number could be a lot higher, along with the tax dollars Iowa could collect. Lewis says he knows a number of Iowans who are going to Colorado and other surrounding states to get the pain relief they need. “There’s a lot of money that’s going elsewhere, that could be in the state coffers,” he said.
But the bottom line for Lewis isn’t about money or even about politics. “I wish that people could be in my body to experience the difference in performance and ability to get around without pain,” he said.
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