Medical Cannabis: What Role Should Doctors and Pharmacists Play?

A chronic pain patient in Utah decides to look into medical cannabis as an alternative to his current treatment. Given that Utah’s medical marijuana law is so strict, he cannot simply walk into a dispensary and buy product. He must first go through the process of obtaining a medical cannabis card. That requires consulting with a medical provider.

The consultation is just the first step. After the patient obtains his medical cannabis card, he takes that card to a dispensary. Before any product can be purchased, he must meet with a medical cannabis pharmacist capable of recommending certain products and dosages., an organization that runs an educational website and clinics through which patients can obtain medical cannabis cards, explains that Utah is on the verge of approving a new rule that would require a pharmacist to review and approve every purchase, rather than just consulting with patients. The idea is to align medical marijuana more closely with other controlled substances dispensed via prescription.

Doctors Have Limited Knowledge

What is currently going on in Utah brings up a long-standing question that has yet to be answered: what role do doctors and pharmacists play in the medical cannabis arena? To be honest, doctors do not spend a whole lot of time learning about the cannabinoid system in medical school. Neither do physician assistants or nurse practitioners.

It might be surprising to learn that doctors with no formal cannabinoid training are recommending medical cannabis. But guess what? Doctors generally have very limited information about the drugs they prescribe. Doctors are not drug experts. They excel in diagnosing illness and prescribing a treatment.

On the other hand, pharmacists are drug experts. They are trained in pharmacology. They understand how drugs work, how the human body responds to different classes of drugs, and so forth. They are actually more qualified to recommend delivery method and dosage than doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners.

Pharmacists Should Probably Take the Lead

Medical cannabis is still fairly new as a state-sanctioned treatment. As much as our knowledge has increased over the years, there is still a lot to learn about the drug and its efficacy. We also need more clinical studies looking into the long-term effects of using cannabis.

Until we have the information we need, perhaps we should shift gears and allow trained pharmacists to take the lead in prescribing cannabis products. Maybe it is a good idea to limit doctors to determining whether or not a patient suffers from a qualifying condition and, in such cases, leave it to the pharmacist to determine product, dosage, and delivery method.

Self-Medication Should Be Off the Table

Assuming that most of the states now allowing medical cannabis have no desire to completely decriminalize and embrace recreational marijuana, something else needs to happen – self-medication should be taken off the table. In other words, we have to change the system so that it is no longer necessary for patients to experiment in order to find out what works best for them.

As things currently stand, a lack of standardization makes self-medicating the rule the day. Patients buy and use different products as they see fit. They track the results so as to make future purchases more effective. But, ultimately, they are still the ones deciding what to use and how often to use it.

Doctors and pharmacists can play a vital role in reducing the need for self-medication. Doctors can and should be educated about the cannabinoid system. Pharmacists can and should push for product standardization. Between them, they have a vital role to play in moving things forward.