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Cannabis study 

To gauge the perceived public health benefits of medical marijuana, researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will conduct a groundbreaking five-year-long survey that could pave the way for understanding cannabis' effect on health.

The survey — which can be found at tinyurl.com/armedcannabis — is a voluntary web survey that will take 30 to 40 minutes to complete. Baseline data is being collected now, before medical cannabis is available. Participants will be surveyed again six, 12 and 18 months after availability. After that the survey will be yearly.

It's a unique opportunity. While other scientists have collected data about perceived health benefits in states where medical cannabis is legal, none have gotten in on the ground floor before the medical cannabis program began, Dr. Bill Fantegrossi, told the Times.

"It just kind of jumped out at me that here in Arkansas we're in this unique position," he said. "We can be the first state to really get our act together quickly. ... By the time [other researchers] started asking these questions [patients were] already using cannabis products."

Fantegrossi realized this hole in the research while talking with researchers from Johns Hopkins, Harvard and McGill universities at a conference. They all noted the lack of comparative data on perceptions and attitudes. Fantegrossi said he returned to UAMS and asked: "How do we actually do it?"

Dr. Nalin Payakachat of the College of Pharmacy at UAMS, who is experienced in surveys, jumped in. Quickly, he and Fantegrossi worked to develop the research tools and survey. Lauren Russell, a graduate assistant, worked to put the model together.

The aim is to get at least 1,000 participants, Payakachat said.

Specific questions about the effect of cannabis on health conditions include, for example, what is the best "route of administration" for those who got medical cannabis for post-traumatic stress disorder? Do respondents have a preference for smoking? Or do more folks with PTSD use oils for taking medical marijuana? Do those with PTSD use products from a grower that has a certain proportion of THC to CBD?

How health benefits correlate to the strains and ingestion of cannabis to the conditions is much less understood than with other drugs. That's why the study could be so important, Fantegrossi said.

"This is a weird example of getting a drug to market," he said. "It didn't go through your normal channels." Most drugs require approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration. They require a specific dosage and are chemically the same.

The FDA does not approve medical cannabis, and the chemical varieties are not studied widely. Different growers can create plants with varied combinations of the chemicals.

Payakachat, as a professor in UAMS' College of Pharmacy, is especially interested in the outsized role that pharmacists play in the market. "Physicians will not have a clear recommendation," she said when someone is approved for cannabis. The survey data could "provide some guidance."

Most medical studies of cannabis are too small and don't show actual cannabis use, Fantegrossi said.

"In addition to things having small sample sizes, they also have crummy cannabis," he said. The cannabis tested in laboratories comes from the National Institutes of Health. "Its THC concentration is incredibly low," Fantegrossi said. "It's not even close to what people smoke recreationally. ... What we're looking at is extending findings — using products that [patients] use of their own free will, presumably landing on something that they like."

The group won't wait until the end of the five years to begin publishing findings. The survey is open for two months to get initial participants. Once baseline data is in, UAMS will start publishing data. Fantegrossi said some data will be available toward the end of April.

"As soon as things come in we'll start to be able to identify potentially interesting things with our state," Payakachat said.

The survey will also track changes in attitude among non-medical cannabis users.

The study is being funded by 7Hybrid Cultivation, an Arkansas-based company applying for a cultivation license in Van Buren County. The company is a partnership between Linda Joan Warren of Maumelle; her daughter, Jill Parodi, and her son-in-law, Daniel Parodi, CEO of Web Systems Management in Austin, Texas. The Parodis were residents of Arkansas previously.

On the application for a cultivation center, special points are given to companies that make community investments.

Researchers say the survey is an example of a huge benefit because the private funding will not restrict the data, which will belong to UAMS, or specifically help 7Hybrid. Researchers say the contract does not prevent them from publishing their research, even if 7Hybrid disapproves of it. There will also be an external investigator "to make sure we don't have bias," Payakachat said.

"We're just trying to capture data that are going to be out there in the air anyway," Fantegrossi said. "If no one catches it, it's going to just be wasted."

Anthony Leem, who works for Parodi, said 7Hybrid approached professors to ask how they could help research. Fantegrossi came to them with this idea, which they agreed to fund. "It's investigator-led," Fantegrossi emphasized.

Leem said the company hopes its aid to the research project will be "looked upon favorably" as the committee decides who will get the five cultivation center licenses. He said any data collected on benefits of medical marijuana would help cultivators equally. "It just shows that even pre-license we're positive stakeholders."

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