Arizona's Week in Weed: ASU Prof's Surprising Pot-Health Study; Details on New Dispensaries

From the tons sold in legal medical-marijuana dispensaries to the tons imported each year from Mexico, Arizona is a place that knows its cannabis. Here's a roundup of last week's biggest pot news stories that affect the Grand Canyon State...

Long-Term Marijuana Use Leads to Few Health Problems, Study Led by ASU Prof Finds
The worst health havoc marijuana will wreak, even when used regularly over a 20-year period, is an increased risk for gum disease, according to a new study led by a researcher at Arizona State University.

Madeline Meier, an assistant professor of psychiatry, made waves with her 2012 study that showed long-term marijuana use could lead to a significant drop in IQ points. Cannabis advocates may feel she has redeemed herself after this latest one.

A journal article about the study is available for purchase online in JAMA Psychiatry, but Meier let New Times peruse a copy.

Meier and colleagues at Duke University, King's College in London, and the University of Otago in New Zealand culled data from a long-term study of more than 1,000 New Zealanders who provided information about themselves for 38 years. The scientists looked at 12 different criteria, including periodontal health, blood pressure, body-mass index, lipid profiles, and lung function.

Tobacco users in the study group fared poorly, as might be expected. They showed signs of reduced health on eight of the 12 indicators. But the chronic cannabis users did okay in the long run, for the most part. Better than okay on some criteria.

First, the bad news: The study showed a noticeably higher risk by midlife for gum disease, a condition that strikes about half of Americans and produces problems like bad breath and, in some cases, loss of teeth. Worse, brushing and flossing more may or may not help.

"Cannabis users brushed and flossed slightly less," Meier tells New Times. "However, our analyses accounted for this. The association between cannabis use and poor periodontal health could not be explained by cannabis users' slight tendency to brush and floss less than others."

While no one wants to be at higher risk for rotting gums, it's what cannabis doesn't do to people that makes this study stand out. Tobacco causes periodontal diseases, plus a host of other problems, like lung dysfunction.

Finding no lung problems in the cannabis users was "somewhat puzzling," given that tobacco users displayed reduced function, the study says.

"In the second surprising instance, we found no association between cannabis use and cardiovascular risks, (e.g., high blood pressure and worse cholesterol levels)," the study states. Other studies have shown an increase risk of "cardiovascular complications, even among young healthy individuals," but those were from the acute effects of marijuana.

Using cannabis is often associated with a temporarily increased heart rate, and the overall risk to the heart has been the subject of rigorous debate. This new study suggests little cause for concern in that regard, at least when the time-frame is a couple of decades.

In some ways, the cannabis-using group was healthier than average. "Findings showed that cannabis use was associated with slightly better metabolic health (smaller waist circumference, lower body mass index, better lipid profiles, and improved glucose control)," the study says.

Using tobacco, though, erases those benefits.

Noting that much about how the cannabinoid compounds in cannabis react in the human body remains unknown, Meier and the other researchers aren't ready to advise everyone to use pot.

"Current evidence suggests that recreational cannabis use is unlikely to improve metabolic health in the general population," the study states.

Then again, the lack of negative effects "could not be attributed to better initial health, more physical activity, better diet, or less alcohol abuse."

In a news release from Duke University last week, Meier pointed out that data from the same New Zealand group previously showed cannabis could be causing "increased risk of psychotic illness, IQ decline, and downward socioeconomic mobility."

Arizona to Grant 31 New Dispensary Licenses in July
The Arizona Department of Health Services released more specifics regarding the round of dispensary licenses that could make some cannabis-minded entrepreneurs a tidy fortune.

DHS has been talking about the new business licenses for a few weeks now. Don't imagine for a second that right-wing-leaning Arizona is going soft for pot: This is all part of a strategy to make sure patients can't grow their own. The 2010, voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Act prohibits patients from cultivating if they live within 25 miles of an operating dispensary.

For a while, the geographic distribution imposed by the state meant that more than 90 percent of Arizona was covered by the no-grow zone. But the law allows dispensaries that have been open for three years to move, and this year some of them have done just that, leaving some parts of the state legal for home-growing. The AMMA allows qualified patients to grow up to 12 plants in secure areas.

The state agency states on its website that it will grant 31 new dispensary licenses from July 18-29. The allocations will be dispersed according to the agency's medical-marijuana rules.

Remember CHAAs? They're the Community Health Analysis Areas that the DHS came up with years ago as a way to conduct health programs; they were later put into service as a handy tool to spread out the dispensaries. Under the new license dispersal, DHS will prioritize the top 30 CHAAs with the most registered patients.

After that, applicants will be prioritized according to whose proposed dispensary location can serve the most patients within a 10-mile radius, the rules say. In the event of a tie, winners will be selected at random.

Applicants will pay $5,000 for the privilege of trying to obtain a license, only $1,000 of which is refundable.

The rules from the first go-round still apply. Would-be pot-shop owners will find the modern weed business has some rather high barriers to entry. If you don't have a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, a potential board of trusted associates, and — most important — the perfect location lined up, it's probably not going to happen.

AZFMR Grassroots Legalization Campaign Implosion
Some supporters of the Arizonans for Mindful Regulation campaign collected signatures over the weekend despite the fact that the group's 2016 legalization campaign has been called off.

A marijuana-legalization measure is almost certain to appear on November's ballot, but it won't be the bold proposal offered by AZFMR. The better-funded Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Arizona claims it has nearly reached its signature goal.

Last week, AZFMR leader Jason Medar announced that his volunteers just weren't bringing in signed petitions quickly enough to turn in more than 150,000 valid voter signatures before the July 7 deadline. When some volunteers said they would step up the pace in order to meet the deadline, Medar wouldn't agree to turn over the signed petitions — which, in turns out, are still in possession of various AZFMR supporters all over the state.

Medar wants to focus on shooting down the CRMLA and plans to outline his reasons to the public sometime in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, it's unclear how long AZFMR volunteers will continue to collect signatures. 
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.

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