Sunday, March 10, 2019

Will Physicians Be Superfluous In The Recreational Cannabis World?

When it comes to advising people to use cannabis for various problems I think the answer is yes.    Only a small fraction of people who can access recreational cannabis will be asking physicians for advice on using these products. There are a confluence of reasons but basically they involve cultural factors, political factors, the marketing of cannabis products, expense, and the inconvenience of seeing a doctor for advice and prescriptions when you can get advice from other people including dealers and producers.  I would go as far as saying that many of the advisors will be prominent media figures giving advice on the use of cannabis and expanding the marketplace.  It follows that the education of physicians should take these factors into account.

It is easy to get into disagreements on Twitter.  I think most physicians including myself are fairly easy to disagree with because we are not invested in “winning” an argument. As a psychiatrist I know that I certainly am not going to win against an ideologue or somebody was interested in calling me names. This week I got into a disagreement about the role of physicians in medical cannabis. The controversy was sparked by an article written by a medical student about why medical cannabis should be discussed in medical schools.  Any reader of this blog knows that my position has been that medical cannabis is basically a political lever to promote the widespread legalization of so-called recreational marijuana. I also believe that every state in the United States will eventually have recreational marijuana. I don't argue that point - I know it will happen.  At that point, we will have a better assessment of the risks involved with this policy and they will be significant.

The issue this week was a post suggesting that medical students and physicians should have more training in “medical cannabis”. My position was that if most states go the way that Colorado went physicians will be entirely superfluous in that process. It comes from my knowledge of interaction of American culture and the wide availability of recreational cannabis products in the state of Colorado. Medications especially those that are self-reinforcing or put more basically the ones that can get you high, attain mythical status in the American culture.  Practically everyone I know hoards opioids.  That supply of oxycodone or hydrocodone that is typically given for some type of injury used to be held onto for years. Neighbors would trade pills back and forth over the fence. Opioids no longer sit in a medicine cabinet for years as people actively seek out opioids to get high or sell.  Most Americans have a set idea of what opioids they would like for pain and that decision-making process is complex based on their experience and also what they’ve heard from other people.  The reality of that process is quite different.

In my opinion pain has been inadequately studied and continues to be inadequately studied. The concept of “self-medication” is at the top of that list. I usually hear about it in the form of this sentence:

“Look Doc, if you can’t get rid of this (anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, fatigue, distractability) I know how to get rid of it for at least four hours.”

When I inquire about the method it invariably comes back to alcohol or some type of consciousness altering drug. I use the term consciousness altering because the drugs used are not necessarily addictive. A good example is a combination of antihistamines and muscle relaxants to cause a state of delirium and sedation. Alcohol is frequently used as a way to address chronic pain. The medical cannabis initiative basically started around the issue of chronic pain and terminal pain. From there it has expanded indications in those states that list their own like Colorado and Minnesota. A lot of people address the issue of chronic pain by altering their conscious state. I certainly have no problem with that in certain circumstances but it is a major unaddressed dimension in the treatment of chronic pain.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has a lengthy position statement (1) on the physician’s role in medical cannabis. They review the need for scientific study and a regulatory process that will provide pure and consistent formulations from companies in a similar manner to the pharmaceutical industry. It is the only way to come up with standardized dosing for specific conditions.  The only problem I have with that statement is that it is fairly naive to think that people with a choice between purchasing high cost pharmaceutical grade medical cannabis and recreational cannabis that claims to have the same cannabinoid content will choose the former whether it is “prescribed” or not.

That leads me to what I see as the role for physicians in a society that has widespread availability of recreational cannabis. Colorado is a good case in point. Looking at what cannabinoid products are available in a Colorado gas station, it is hard to imagine that people will be consulting physicians for what products to use. I recently found a web site for Colorado gas station cannabis with a wide range of smokable and edible cannabis products.  The edible products contained up to 250 mg THC per bar.  Physicians currently have the role of certifying conditions for people who will get access to medical cannabis. In Minnesota advice about medical cannabis comes from the pharmacists dispensing it and not from physicians. There is widespread advice available on the Internet about how any interested user could start using cannabis.

All of these factors, lead me to conclude that there will be a very limited role for physicians in recommending cannabis or prescribing it. There have been limited medical studies of cannabis and limited indications. There are basically two FDA approved applications and even those medications will be obsolete when people have access to the recreational and less expensive forms. There is no logic at all to declaring a botanical product is on the one hand “medical” and on the other hand “recreational”.

A larger role for physicians will be in the treatment of the medical complications from cannabis and people who become addicted to it.  As millions and millions of people start using legal cannabis – the number of people addicted to it will also increase.

The best way to address cannabis in a medical school curriculum doesn’t require an extensive course in medical cannabis for an ever-increasing political list of indications.  It should not teach medical students that they are going to have a central role in the acquisition and prescription of cannabis.  It can be done in the following courses:

1.  Basic science: neuroanatomy and neurophysiology – the endocannabinoid system’s critical role in basic physiology and clinical correlations.

2.  Basic science: pharmacology – detailed pharmacology of cannabinoids.

3.  Addiction course- there needs to be a basic 2-week course added to the medical school curriculum on addiction and the prescription of drugs that reinforce their own use with necessary risk mitigation techniques.  Many medical schools have a 6-week course in psychiatry that is usually based on an inpatient unit.  I recommend adding two weeks to that with experience in an addiction clinic. I currently work in a program where we provide two week training programs to residents, medical students, and physicians for this purpose.

4.  Elective course - experience in specialty programs where there may be more cannabinoid use (pain clinics, palliative care, toxicology) that can be tailored to a student’s interest.

5.  Clear identification of resources for further study - during lectures I always mention the major addiction texts and their organization. Additional state-of-the art references could be posted in a self study syllabus - primarily because a clinical focus would not allow enough time to cover the necessary basic science.

6.  Advice on the regulatory burden - in the foreseeable future that means familiarity with the statutes and regulations in each state.  Medical schools generally do not teach these practical aspects of medical care.  States recognize that physicians can't prescribe a CSA Schedule 1 drug, and limit the physicians role to certifying the conditions that qualify the patient for medical cannabis. Some states require physicians to get approval for that role.  That seems like overkill to me. Any medical record with the qualifying condition listed should lead to certification and would probably be more objective. 

Any effort beyond what I have listed above is probably unrealistic based on the fact that this is (along with supervised practice) is the basic approach to any medication that physicians prescribe.  I am not aware of any medical school initiatives to intensify the training for opioids, benzodiazepines, or stimulants but would appreciate hearing about any of those courses. In the course where I teach, we see medical students, residents, and physicians from all over the US and Canada.

In closing are there possibly ways where physicians will end up in a more central role? Only if the FDA and other regulatory bodies put them there.  For example, in my post on Epidiolex I asked about the patentability of CBD products, specifically this one that was an extraction product of cannabis.  Physicians prescribing these FDA products need to learn to prescribe them like any new product, but is there a chance that FDA approved and patented cannabis products are a threat to the products available for recreational and medical use from dispensaries?  There is currently a story circulating saying that the FDA is going to ban all CBD oil use except for Epidiolex and it will cost all users $32, 500 a year. That would favor the pharmaceutical industry but I don't think that will happen. It is more likely that other products designed to affect the endocannabinoid system will be developed like standard pharmaceuticals and that will lead to physician prescribing - if there is anyone left at that point who is not using recreational cannabis.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Supplementary Information:

I recently encountered an interesting twist by a cannabis advocate in a state where recreational cannabis is not yet legal and medical cannabis is strictly controlled as non-smokable products.  He argued that the terms recreational cannabis and medical cannabis should be changed to cannabis for non-prescription and prescription use.  He argued that this would normalize the political process since nobody designates alcohol as recreational or medical. The obvious reason is that alcohol has extremely limited roles as a medication.  The term medical cannabis may have lost some of its luster as a politically correct approach.    


1:  The Role of the Physician in “Medical” Marijuana. ASAM Public Policy Statement (2010) Link


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  1. Sorry, but it is a political issue, the states that are eager to approve recreational use of marijuana are almost all leftist / Democrat run States.

    When you have a distracted and dumbed-down population, they're easier to control. It is that simple at the end of the day, and potheads, who are the loudest shriekers for legalization, they're going to side with the party that wants to give them whatever they want, it is the price of dependency...

  2. How do you explain mostly conservative doctors who advocate for a prominent role for physicians in the medical cannabis field? I realize that they can't be polled individually but in the cannabis conferences I attended most of the speaker were not psychiatrists and psychiatrists are the only medical specialty that is predominately Democrat and liberal.

  3. Here is a debate between an anti journalist and a pro Canadian doctor. Though I agree with the journo more based on my biases, I think the doctor won the debate. One important thing that came out was agreement on medical CBD and that THC should be avoided in people under 25. Joe is even walking back his support, and recalls some scary stories about edibles. It's a bit long but good car listening.

    1. Watched the first 15 minutes.

      The story about being high for 2 weeks from a vape pen sounds suspiciously like a psychotic episode to me. The fact that a cannabis advocate has come to realize this speaks to what will happen when it is widely available. There is probably an even larger group that will put their lives on hold while they smoke cannabis for 10 or 20 years.

      Agree that CBD has some promise, but even then there is minimal real evidence. I am interested in a non-addicting sleep medication for chronic insomnia and 10 mg CBD is highly recommended for that despite no hard evidence. Somebody needs to do a clinical trial but nobody is going to cover the cost if I can buy it at a gas station. The trail needs to be done because of the surprise finding of elevated LFTs in the Epidiolex trail.

      Does that occur only with high dose CBD or can it also happen with chronic low dose use?

    2. Yes I would see no reason to select CBD over say, low dose Trazodone for insomnia. The potency and lack of quantitative control makes modern THC magnitudes more dangerous than it was in the 70s. Even then, I knew people who had psychotic breaks on it.

  4. To answer the question in the article title, yes we will be irrelevant...until 10 years from now when expert witnesses are needed in the predictable replay of the Purdue Pharm lawsuits and bankruptcy.

  5. Regardless of what political bent physicians have, no one who is credible and attentive is going to promote the legalization of marijuana without boundaries, and in the end, too many physicians are either not that invested to pay attention to political interests, or, are trying to profit from it by likely investing in marijuana industries.

    I have been watching this pathetic effort to push for legalization be fronted by those who just want to be real life Cheech and Chongs, or have a financial angle. It is what it is for likely over 70% of the loudest shriekers wanting pot for all.

    But, I do wait, and sadly hope for, that hideous moment of the horrific incident when a pothead kills someone of importance in our culture per driving or operating something that can become a lethal weapon. When that happens, then, the public will wise up. It is human nature: Hmm, is that stove in front of me on, I have a hand to sacrifice...

    1. Just got a reference to the issue of drugged drivers. Has been studied in Norway due to a change in their laws. Recidivism rate was 60% in 7 years and they had 20 fold mortality rate compare with matched controls. In most studies THC is the most frequently sampled drug followed by benzodiazepines.

  6. These momentum THC stocks that the millennials are buying up with the enthusiasm of Bitcoin (how did that work out?) will all end up like Purdue because they are overstating benefits and covering up harms. CBD is viable and safer but overhyped.

    There is no reason that THC use should be legal under the age of 25. I realize that's an enforcement nightmare, but it's grounded in solid science.

    1. Hard to invest as long as cannabis is Schedule 1 drug with the associated business restrictions. Market action in Canada also suggests it will trade like a commodity. For investors there are too many producers - like the medical cannabis boom in California where everybody was an overnight expert in horticulture. Latest trend is a course in Ohio that focuses on making it a legitimate business. Price action will pick up when Wall St. picks a few favorites and they will be subject to manipulation/hype.

  7. Latest on Colorado experience with edibles:

  8. Couldn't see that coming could we? I tired to pull the original article but it is behind a paywall: