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New Study to Examine Medical Cannabis Program in Arkansas



Researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) have received a $1.3 million federal grant to study the impact of the state’s medical cannabis program.

The study, titled “Population-Based Analyses of Healthcare Utilization and Outcomes in Users of Medical Marijuana” will be an analysis of the state’s medical cannabis program by cross-referencing cannabis purchase information with insurance claims data and other data sources to better understand the effect cannabis has on medical care. The study will also look at how COVID-19 and the pandemic affected the state’s medical cannabis program, such as cardholder requests and product purchases.

Data will be gathered from six sources, the Arkansas Healthcare Transparency Initiative’s Arkansas All-Payer Claims Database (APCD), the Arkansas Department of Health medical cannabis patient registry data, medical cannabis purchase data, vital records, emergency room records and Arkansas State Police motor vehicle crash data.

“The APCD is a dynamic tool that promotes transparency in healthcare data, and by combining these datasets, our state can assess specific health outcomes, including inpatient and outpatient care visits, emergency visits, opioid usage and new health diagnosis,” Arkansas Insurance Commissioner Alan McClain, said. The Arkansas Insurance Department oversees the Arkansas Healthcare Transparency Initiative, which includes the APCD.

ACHI president and CEO Dr. Joe Thompson says Arkansas’ unique transparency laws allow for this to be one of the first studies of its kind. The ACHI says all data will be “de-identified,” meaning names will be removed from the data on health and cannabis purchases.

“I think there will be a lot of eyes on this study both within the state and across the nation. There’s really been no study that, from a population perspective, has looked at the effect of a policy like making medical marijuana available as a new therapeutic,” Thompson said. “If we find that it has very positive effects, then there may be policy changes that bring it more integrated into the traditional providers of care.”

Arkansas’ medical cannabis program was first introduced in 2016. Currently, there are over 80,000 registered medical cannabis patients enrolled in the program who use cannabis to treat 18 qualifying health conditions, including chronic pain, cancer and PTSD.

As part of the law that allowed medical cannabis, Arkansas limited the number of authorized growers in the state to eight. The state is also limited to 40 dispensaries across the state, with the state being divided into eight zones, with five dispensaries in each zone. The state currently has 38 licensed medical cannabis retailers.

Medical cannabis sales in Arkansas reached just over $200 million in December 2020 after reaching just over $50 million by March of the same year. At that time, the Department of Finance and Administration had not cleared all of the 31 dispensaries that are currently in operation in the state. The state saw a huge increase in cannabis sales during the pandemic as more people were using cannabis while having to stay home during the first wave of the pandemic.

Non-profit organization Arkansas True Grass is working to get a cannabis legalization question on the state ballot for the elections in November 2022 by collecting 20,000 signatures. Jesse Rafael, the project’s spokesman for northwest Arkansas, said the group worked on a similar effort that failed to reach the 2016 ballot. The group needs a total of 89,101 signatures by June 2022 to get on the ballot for the election. The group’s proposal would allow for cannabis possession and use by adults aged 21 or older, allow sales through licensed retailers, allow for expungement of all cannabis crimes that would become legal under the law and allow adults to cultivate up to 12 plants at home.