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Adult-Use Cannabis on Horizon as Study Looks at Medical Marijuana Data

3 min read

Just as an Arkansas nonprofit announced it had 20,000 signatures supporting a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use in Arkansas, the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement in Little Rock celebrated a $1.3 million medical marijuana research grant Thursday.

The grant will be used to analyze the impact of the state’s existing medical marijuana system.

The state’s network of licensed medicinal cannabis cultivation centers and dispensaries serves 80,000 Arkansans with any of 18 qualifying health conditions, including intractable pain, cancer and severe arthritis.

Since the first dispensary opened in May 2019, patients in Arkansas have spent more than $400 million on more than 60,000 pounds of highly regulated medical marijuana. Three dozen dispensaries are in operation, and the busiest, the Releaf Center in Bentonville, has sold more than 6,000 pounds of product.

Meanwhile, nonprofit Arkansas True Grass is promoting its work to put the recreational measure on the ballot for November 2022, saying it has 20,000 of the 89,101 signatures it will need by next June to get that on the ballot.

Jesse Rafael, the project’s spokesman for northwest Arkansas, said Arkansas True Grass, formed in 2015, has been gathering signatures for several months. Its 20,000-signature milestone was first reported by KUAR and Talk Business & Politics in Little Rock.

Rafael, who said the group worked on a similar initiative that did not reach the ballot in 2016, said COVID had slowed some signature gathering. He added that the plan is for recreational marijuana to complement the existing medical marijuana program, not replace it.

The nonprofit includes members with medical marijuana cards, but many grouse about the system’s limited list of qualifying medical conditions. They also say the limited market drives up prices and doesn’t allow patients to grow their own medication. The proposed amendment let Arkansans 21 and up grow 12 marijuana plants. Convicts incarcerated for nonviolent marijuana-related crimes would be released, and records would be expunged. The proposed amendment is available here.

Recreational marijuana sales would be taxed at current sales tax rates plus an 8% marijuana excise sales tax. Local entities would be able to collect 5% from recreational marijuana sales.

Research Grant

ACHI, a nonpartisan independent health policy center that serves as the state’s de facto health policy shop, issued a news release Thursday on its $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The money will fund a study, catchily titled “Population-Based Analyses of Healthcare Utilization and Outcomes in Users of Medical Marijuana,” is described as a first-of-its kind look at health outcomes in medicinal marijuana, studying consumers’ cannabis purchase information and insurance claim records, among other data sources, to better understand marijuana’s effects on patients’ medical care.

“This is an exciting and unique opportunity for not only our state, but also the country to investigate the effectiveness of cannabis for therapeutic use,” said Dr. Joe Thompson, ACHI president and CEO, and a principal investigator on the study. “While researchers have gathered scientific evidence on the use of cannabis for the alleviation of symptoms such as pain and anxiety, there is little evidence on how the amount, strain, potency and method of use affect a person’s health experience.”

The study will incorporate data from six Arkansas sources: the Arkansas Healthcare Transparency Initiative’s Arkansas All-Payer Claims Database, the Arkansas Department of Health medical marijuana patient registry, medical cannabis dispensary purchase data, vital records, emergency department records, and the Arkansas State Police motor vehicle crash data system. The names of patients will be “de-identified,” ACHI said, meaning their names won’t be associated with the data on health or cannabis purchases.

Arkansas is one of 36 states with some form of legalized marijuana.

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