Can Medical Marijuana Help Your Practice Thrive?

Leigh Page

Disclosures

January 15, 2019

In This Article

Is Medical Marijuana Right for Your Practice?

Medical marijuana presents a looming decision for some doctors. As more states legalize medical marijuana, should doctors get involved? Will it be beneficial to their medical practice? Or does it entail the type of work and effort that makes it wiser to stay away?

Almost every state lets doctors recommend some form of medical cannabis to their patients, even if it's only in a very limited program. Some use cannabis as a back-up treatment for a wide variety of conditions and diseases that are hard to treat, including chronic pain, seizures, cancer, and withdrawal from opiate addiction.

What's more, a growing number of patients are pressing doctors to recommend medical cannabis for them. But so far, most doctors are holding back from joining state programs. In states where physician participation was recently measured, the rate was just 4.1% in Florida,[1] 2% in New Jersey,[2] and 1% in New York.[2]

Whereas 13 states have very limited medical cannabis programs, 33 states have comprehensive ones, and 10 of those have moved on to legalizing pot for recreational use.[3] More states are expected to follow.

Many doctors who choose to stay away cite these reasons:

1. Cannabis is still seen by many as a drug of abuse. The federal government still classifies it as a dangerous drug that can be addictive and serves as a gateway for stronger drugs. However, many experts dispute this view.

2. Many doctors don't believe the medical claims. Many possible uses of cannabis still need more research, whereas there is stronger scientific evidence behind some claims, such as treatment for chronic pain and epilepsy.

3. Many fear that some patients just want pot for recreational use. Because recreational marijuana is still illegal in most states, patients might play sick to get marijuana. However, many patients who use medical cannabis have never used it before and are purely interested in its medical effects.

4. Doctors fear prosecution. Cannabis has been illegal at the federal level for almost half a century, but the specter of federal agents prosecuting doctors has never materialized. The possibility of investigations by state licensing boards, on the other hand, still makes many doctors nervous.

Issues to Consider Before Jumping In

Despite these ongoing concerns, the legalization movement for marijuana shows no signs of abating. As public interest in cannabis grows, now is a good time for doctors to consider its medical merits and whether it's a good idea to add cannabis to their practice.

Doctors who wish to do so face a learning curve. Cannabis for medical use was not taught in medical school, and unless physicians have read the occasional journal article on it, they probably need to take the time to learn more about it.

There are more hurdles. Once physicians educate themselves and enroll in state cannabis programs, they will have to deal with a frankly atypical authorization process—shaped more by legal concerns and politics than by medical traditions, such as the prescription pad and the pharmacy.

To get through these challenges, cannabis doctors have to believe in what they are doing, says Bryan Doner, DO, an emergency physician who runs Compassionate Certification Centers, a chain of cannabis clinics in the western Pennsylvania.

"You need to have some passion to be a medical marijuana physician," he says. When he founded the company in 2015, "I had some worries about whether this would work. It's complicated. But my passion and my knowledge helped see me through."

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