Austin Calhoun spends $60-$100 for medical marijuana every week. He needs the medicine to decrease his seizures and nausea, and it also helps eliminate the inflammation caused by his arthritis. He knows it works.
“It is definitely, right now, a little pricey. I would like to see the price go down because a lot of people can’t afford to pay $100 per week. That adds up very fast,” Austin Calhoun says.
But he may be one of the lucky ones. His mother, Angie Calhoun, is the founder and CEO of the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Patients Alliance. She and her organization played an active role in lobbying for passage of the Mississippi medical marijuana law enacted in 2022. Even so, she says there is so little research about the use of marijuana in a medical setting that some patients may literally be burning through their savings for nothing.
“Many (patients) can spend over $1,000 on their medication in a month, but if it’s not working then they wasted that money. Through the data (collected from patients) we can learn what strains and doses work best for certain conditions, which will save patients so much money in the end.”
Complicating the issue is that medical insurance does not pay for medical marijuana usage because it remains illegal at the federal level.
Dr. Daniel Edney, the Mississippi State Health Officer, points out that some visits to medical professionals related to medical marijuana may qualify for insurance while others may not. “There won’t be coverage for just going to get a card, but if you’re with your doctor and you bring up medical cannabis and your provider thinks that this would be a reasonable thing, then that (consultation) is something that could be covered. … Unfortunately, no third party is going to help pay for the product.”
Angie Calhoun said, “If we’ve developed a bill and a program that is not affordable and accessible, then this program was for nothing.”
Lacking Patient Data
Dr. Larry Walker is the former director of the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi, where he oversaw all natural products research, including the cannabis research project. He says more data on medical cannabis is needed to ensure better outcomes for patients and less wasted expense.
“Let’s try to make it work the best we can and do the least harm that we can. (Medical cannabis) does work for some things, but it’s a matter of which product and what dose, so I would love to see more research done along those lines.”
Researchers have previously established that cannabis can have anti-inflammatory effects throughout the body and alleviate nausea by acting on chemical receptors in the brain.
Angie Calhoun also stressed the importance of the medical cannabis industry’s involvement in further research.
“We need to get data to validate what (growers and dispensaries) are doing so that no one ever gets to come back and say, ‘Well, this is not real medicine’, because we know that it is, but there’s still a lot of stigma behind it, and we have to end that by proving the efficacy of medical cannabis through industry support in funding our research program,” she said.
Melvin Robinson, executive director of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association, says the industry is supportive of medical cannabis research.
“I cannot say that I have come across (a company) that explicitly states they give money for research. I also have not heard a lot of conversations about research since dispensaries have opened,” he said.
The NCNPR has been researching cannabis for almost 50 years. Angie Calhoun says that puts the state in a unique position for becoming a reliable source of information on medical marijuana for patients all over the world.
“I thought to myself: This is the way that we can actually make a big difference and make Mississippi the pinnacle of research for medical cannabis,” Angie Calhoun said.
Austin Calhoun concurred: “I believe that the state of Mississippi — with all the research that’s going on and having Ole Miss involved with it — is really going to help us out.”
The university and the MCPA have announced a joint partnership with an app called Releaf to collaborate on marijuana research. The app allows patients to document their experiences and record and track side effects they experience using medical cannabis and CBD, as well as other cannabis-derived products.
“By knowing what strains those patients used to treat a debilitating medical condition, we can begin to hone in very closely on a particular strain to grow for certain conditions, which will save patients so much money in the end,” Calhoun said.
This database eventually will be analyzed by researchers at the University of Mississippi in order to create a better understanding of what strains and doses work best for certain conditions and groups of patients.
Without additional professional research programs, scientists are left to rely on medically untrained patients to give an assessment of whether a treatment is working.
Angie Calhoun points out that when researchers or practitioners look to a resource for information about strains or dosing, they want to know that it is a reliable source.
“For 55 years (cannabis research) has been done here in Oxford, and we need to be the ones leading that because we have the most experience, and in the end it will help our patients because they need to know what is going to work when they walk into a dispensary to buy their medication,” she said.
The Releaf app is available in all commonly used app stores for free, and it is HIPAA compliant: The data is recorded anonymously and cannot be traced back to an individual. The app also provides many resources that can benefit medical cannabis users such as information about what varieties have worked best for other patients. Further information about the Releaf app can be found at www.releafapp.com
Austin Calhoun said the Releaf app is easy to use and has helped him figure out which strains of cannabis will work best for his symptoms.
“The main thing I’m always looking for is finding strains that are going to help my nausea, arthritis and seizures. … If more and more people say, ‘Hey, that strain works really well for me,’ there’s going to be something in that strain that we need to research and find out why it helps people with certain symptoms.”
Story by Andrea Cleveland