THE CANNABIS KING OF IOWA
By ANDREW MCGINN
They say what makes us unique is that we’re a nation of laws — but that doesn’t always mean the laws have to make sense.
Take, for example, Iowa’s stance on growing hemp and selling products derived from it.
Just a year ago, anyone in Iowa selling a product containing CBD — short for cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating chemical compound from the leafy green plant Cannabis sativa touted for its health benefits — could have been cuffed and hauled off to jail as a menace to society.
Now, the same person selling the same product is regarded by the law as a legitimate entrepreneur, provided they’re licensed as a “consumable hemp retailer” by the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.
Welcome to Andy Krieger’s life.
The Jefferson businessman — whose fifth-generation family company, Krieger Greenhouses and Flower Shop, is at the forefront of Iowa’s cannabis industry — has cautiously maneuvered his way through a shifting legal and bureaucratic minefield.
While it finally became legal to sell CBD products in Iowa the first week of March, Krieger nevertheless paid a courtesy call to the Greene County Law Enforcement Center the morning of March 1 — the day their state license was approved — to make sure everyone got the memo.
“I wanted that to come from me,” he said.
Actually, according to Krieger, it officially became legal — per legislation — to sell products containing CBD in Iowa on July 1, 2020, but packaging and labeling requirements were yet to be finalized, and no licenses were issued until March 1.
See? A bureaucratic minefield.
“This has been a battle,” Krieger, 55, confessed one recent morning from behind the counter of Greene Goods, his new health market on Westwood Drive.
Affixed to the wall behind him was the family’s week-old “consumable hemp retailer” license — the very first one in the state, Krieger takes pride in noting.
“I’m not going to get frustrated,” he explained, beginning to recount the events of the past year, “because we’re through it.”
By Krieger’s own admission, he jumped the gun last year and started selling homegrown CBD products while the industry was still in regulatory limbo.
He got wise and pulled his product and took down the banner proclaiming “CBD SOLD HERE” after about a month — but, for what it’s worth, what a month it was. Initial business was “awesome,” he said.
Next, rumors started flying last fall after the police chief and county sheriff accompanied the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship on a pre-harvest inspection of about 300 open-air cannabis plants on Westwood Drive.
The Kriegers were among about 13 percent of Iowa hemp growers during the state’s inaugural growing season to have their cannabis fail inspection for excess THC — so up in smoke it went, but not in the Colorado sense. The crop was literally, puritanically, set on fire.
“The rumors I heard were utterly amazing,” Krieger explained.
“We’re following the rules we need to follow,” he added. “Rumors are rumors.”
It is, in short, a brave new world.
Advocates of marijuana law reform would argue it’s not nearly brave enough yet in Iowa, as cannabis with a concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (aka THC, the psychoactive, high-producing compound) greater than 0.39 percent is still illegal, as is the sale of inhalable hemp products.
But generations have grown up believing that industrial hemp (THC under 0.39 percent) and marijuana (THC above 0.39) are one and the same.
The problem is that since passage in 1937 of the Marijuana Tax Stamp Act, all cannabis — whether it’s elevated enough in THC to get someone baked (marijuana) or low enough in THC to be turned into some of the strongest rope on Earth (hemp) — has been guilty by association.
It doesn’t help that both types of cannabis — hemp and marijuana — look alike, making hemp the target of vegetal profiling.
Lawmakers apparently decided it would be easiest to declare it all illegal, making cannabis in all forms a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin and LSD, under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs are those deemed by the United States to have a high potential for abuse and possess “no currently accepted medical use.”
But 85 years after “Reefer Madness” — the infamous movie about the evils of smoking Mary Jane — a few substances on the Schedule I list are under scrutiny as having been criminalized, not for how they affect the body, but for who was predominately using them: minorities and the counterculture.
Since Colorado and Washington in 2012, recreational marijuana has now been legalized in more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia.
All the while, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have been compiling evidence that hallucinogenics (“magic mushrooms” in particular) are efficacious in the treatment of major depression, PTSD, end-of-life anxiety and even substance abuse, and are safe to use in the right setting, like in the office of a trained therapist.
For hemp at least, the beginning of the end of prohibition came with a provision in the 2018 Farm Bill exempting it from the list of Schedule I controlled substances and adding hemp to the list of agricultural commodities eligible for crop insurance.
Nevertheless, an Ankeny store owner was busted in 2019 for selling gummies containing CBD, one of more than dozens of compounds in cannabis.
So, for the local Krieger family, it was somewhat at their own peril that they sought to lead the way for legal CBD in Iowa, receiving one of the first licenses issued by the state in 2020 to grow up to 40 acres of hemp. From that hemp they hoped to process and retail their own line of CBD products — products that have exploded in popularity nationally as an over-the-counter remedy to everything from arthritis to anxiety.
Knowing is half the battle
“It’s tough,” Andy Krieger explained, “but it’s fun to be a part of something this important. It’s completely worth the battle.”
Four hemp-derived CBD products now legally grace the shelves at Greene Goods — two for topical use (lotion and a muscle rub) and two taken orally (a tincture and hard candy). The family also sells hemp seeds.
Little of it has come easy.
To grow hemp and sell products containing CBD has been like fighting a war on two separate fronts.
“There was a large learning curve this first year,” Krieger said.
The Kriegers — who last fall hosted a conference in Jefferson for Iowa growers to network, commiserate and vent — haven’t been alone in their struggles. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship issued 86 total licenses in 2020 to grow hemp on 733 acres. Of that, growers in 48 counties planted 680 acres.
But then came the really hard part: Keeping the hemp street legal.
Of 123 official samples taken by the state, 16 exceeded Iowa’s acceptable THC threshold of 0.39 percent, resulting in mandatory destruction. An additional 152 acres (12 plantings) were voluntarily destroyed, according to the state, for reasons that included everything from weed pressure to private testing that indicated an excess of THC.
Krieger is quick to note they weren’t necessarily growing marijuana out on Westwood Drive. In Colorado, for example, he said growers of recreational marijuana strive for THC levels of 20-28 percent. In keeping with federal guidelines, Iowa orders hemp destroyed if the THC exceeds 0.39 percent.
Good luck getting high on that.
“Iowa is conservative,” Krieger said, searching for just the right words. “They want to make sure things are done right.”
The past year, they learned, wasn’t just hard on people. Stress is hard on cannabis as well.
Between a drought and a derecho, the 300 cannabis plants growing outside the Kriegers’ greenhouse in Jefferson were stressed to the max. And when cannabis gets overly stressed — the irony of ironies here — it produces more THC to cope.
“The outdoor crop went hot, according to the state of Iowa,” he said.
Fortunately, according to Krieger, they also had 1,600 plants growing indoors at their facility in Boone, ensuring they had enough of a crop to make product.
“The learning curve is really steep,” he said, “but it’s interesting.”
In a year-end Hemp Grower Survey taken by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, growers reported all manner of trouble in 2020, from drought and pollen drift to an invasion of weeds. One grower reported a 75 percent failure rate from seed to start.
Controlling THC levels was, of course, cited as a challenge. One Iowa grower complained of an “inability to sell a crop which was legally grown within the state,” adding that there “still seems to be a complete lack of education between hemp and its cousin marijuana.”
It probably doesn’t help, either, when someone like Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts goes on record as, “If you legalize marijuana, you’re gonna kill your kids,” when speaking this month about medical marijuana.
That said, no deaths from marijuana overdose have been reported, according to the DEA.
And even though voters in neighboring South Dakota approved Constitutional Amendment A on Nov. 3 to legalize recreational use of marijuana — voting to tax and regulate pot like alcohol effective July 1 — the issue is nevertheless facing a court challenge. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem — like Ricketts, a Republican — called the vote “disappointing” and supports an effort to overturn Amendment A, according to the Marijuana Policy Project.
Their comments come at a time when public support for legal marijuana has never been higher, according to Gallup, the venerable polling organization established by a Jefferson native.
A new Gallup poll in November showed 68 percent of U.S. adults support legal marijuana.
When Gallup first asked the public about marijuana legalization, back in 1969, support was at just 12 percent, and stayed below 30 percent until 2000.
But support varies by party affiliation.
In the latest poll, 83 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of independents back legal marijuana compared to 48 percent of Republicans — and Republican support for it is down, Gallup reported, from 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Krieger believes the hemp industry is headed for a renaissance after more than eight decades of prohibition. The manufacturing infrastructure for hemp was dismantled, but he predicts a day when the biggest market demands for hemp will be as a renewable fiber for concrete, clothing, composite wood and a plethora of other products.
Until then, the market wants CBD — and he’s happy to give it to them.
Customers streamed through his door last year during the month he prematurely started selling.
He said half were seeking an all-natural product to lower inflammation, while the other half — spurred on by the pandemic — wanted to alleviate stress.
“We spend our whole lives searching for a purpose,” he said. “That first month, it felt great. People came in with needs. We were able to meet that need.”
“You’re not just selling,” Krieger added. “You’re supplying an answer to a lot of questions.”