Medical Marijuana: A Look at Pharmacists’ Roles in this Emerging Industry
Article: Sept 14, 2015 by PBA-HEALTH / E-Elements Magazine
With more and more states legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use, medical marijuana is a business opportunity pharmacists can start looking into.
“Pharmacists are the ideal professionals to dispense medical marijuana, or to at least have knowledge about it,” said Joseph Friedman, R.Ph., MBA, while presenting a continuing education session, “Medical Marijuana and the Pharmacist Behind the Curtain,” during the Connect 2015 PBA Health Conference & Business Seminar in July. “After all, we are the drug experts.”
Friedman is in the process of opening his own medical marijuana dispensary in Illinois. In September 2014, he was awarded one of 57 licenses to own and operate a medical marijuana dispensary in Illinois, and he hopes to open his dispensary later this year.
Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Forbes estimates that 2.4 million people in the U.S. have registered as medical marijuana patients, and projects that the industry will grow to $9 billion by 2017. Friedman said he expects more states to legalize medical marijuana in the next five years, and that pharmacists are in an ideal position to join this growing industry.
“There’s a whole wealth of possible benefits based on doing this right—dosing it right, giving it to the patient right, and counseling the patient correctly,” he said.
“Medical marijuana is a real drug with real side effects,” Friedman said. “It deserves the same close attention that every other legitimate drug requires.”
For example, patients can experience an increase in heart rate and a decrease in blood pressure after initially consuming marijuana. “New patients should be made aware of this,” he said. “This is exactly the kind of information licensed pharmacists are trained and experienced to provide.”
And patients will look to you for that knowledge—whether or not you own a dispensary. “When these patients are going to the dispensary down the street, it’s important that you have an idea of what they’re taking and that you can counsel them,” he said.
Friedman also said pharmacists have the skills, training, experience and education to help patients manage marijuana use. And, pharmacists have that all- important patient-focused mindset. “We know what questions to ask. We know how to monitor patients, and we also know how to interact with other health care professionals,” he said.
In addition to the clinical skills, Friedman said pharmacists also already have the operational skills needed to manage dispensing medical marijuana, such as dealing with difficult suppliers, maintaining quality inventory controls and complying with strict rules and regulations.
While pharmacists may be the ideal health care professionals to dispense marijuana, Friedman said there’s one huge obstacle: Marijuana is illegal.
“Cannabis is a Schedule I drug, according to the Controlled Substances Act,” Friedman said. “This means that in the states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana, all licensed and registered medical marijuana growers, distributors and patients are breaking federal laws under the Controlled Substances Act every single day.”
“Even though medical marijuana may be legal where you live and work, the federal laws are having a huge impact on the business,” he said. “Because of warnings from the U.S. Justice Department, banks are reluctant to open bank accounts—or loan money—to legal medical marijuana businesses. As a result, medical marijuana is a cash-only business. Just imagine how dangerous that is.”
Friedman called for cannabis to be federally reclassified and for more legal clarification and guidance on the industry.
“Each jurisdiction has different rules and regulations,” he said. “There’s no standardization. None. It’s like the Wild West.”
Many aspects of dispensing medical marijuana are still unclear, but the push for pharmacists to take part is happening. Colleges of pharmacy are creating courses and sponsoring lectures on medical marijuana, Friedman said, and national organizations are preparing.
“The National Association of Specialty Pharmacy (NASP) developed a task force on medical marijuana about a year and a half ago because they felt that all of those patients who walked into specialty pharmacies were also the types of patients who would be getting medical marijuana,” Friedman said.
“At the end of last year, NASP established the National Association of Cannabis Based Medicine (NACBM) to help pharmacists obtain the required coaching to make the most of cannabis as a therapy, particularly within the retail channel,” he said.
As well, the Cannabis Training Institute, an online training and certification resource for cannabis businesses, entrepreneurs, clinicians and policymakers, is currently preparing certification for pharmacists.
“I’m working alongside other pharmacy content experts to develop pharmacist CE modules that will be ACPE-Accredited,” Friedman said. “These modules will begin to be available this fall.”
By the numbers
4 – Number of states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington)
24 – Number of states that have legalized marijuana for medical purposes
16 – Number of states that have pending legislation regarding medical marijuana
Sources: CNN; “Medical Marijuana and the Pharmacist Behind the Curtain,” A continuing education session by Joseph Friedman, R.Ph., MBA