Nearly three dozen states and Washington, D.C. have now legalized cannabis in some form. For medical marijuana patients across the country, that means easier access to a treatment that provides relief without the unwanted side effects of prescription drugs.
But, if marijuana is a medicine, how come you can’t buy it at your neighborhood pharmacy or the CVS around the corner?
Reason #1: Cannabis is still illegal at the federal level.
Despite the recent reclassification of a few CBD-containing drugs and the removal of hemp-derived CBD from the federal list of controlled substances (more on that below), the government still considers cannabis a Schedule I narcotic.
Not only does the Schedule I classification make it illegal for physicians to prescribe medical marijuana (you will notice, here in Arizona, that doctors are required to provide a written certification and not a prescription) but it also makes it illegal for pharmacists to dispense it.
Unlike medical marijuana dispensaries, which are licensed by the state in which they were established, pharmacies are licensed by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—a federal agency.
So, independent pharmacists risk losing their business if they dispense mmj to patients, and larger drugstore chains risk not being able to operate their pharmacy divisions. That, in itself, is a pretty big deterrent.
Its illegal status also means the U.S. government restricts the amount of research that can be conducted on marijuana. This is a tough sell for pharmacy professionals, who are used to seeing substantial documentation, clinical trials and peer-reviewed articles on the substances they dispense.
Finally, pharmacists are used to ingredients and dosage recommendations that are standardized across the industry. Because individual state regulations differ with regard to labeling, dosage and—this is a big one—testing for contaminants, the lack of established standards for cannabis is a significant cause for concern.
Medical marijuana dispensary agents, however, understand the need for some initial trial and error when it comes to helping new mmj patients determine the right strain, amount and method of consumption for their needs, which often doesn’t jive with traditional pharmacy teachings.
Reason #2: The mmj legal landscape is more of a minefield.
For a community of individuals known for being extremely regimented and doing things “by the book,” the medical marijuana legal landscape makes most pharmacy professionals apprehensive.
State and federal cannabis laws are evolving at a rapid pace, and keeping up with changes in legislation practically requires a law degree on the side. In the last six months alone, several new states moved forward with measures to legalize and decriminalize marijuana.
At the federal level, the DEA recently recategorized a select group of CBD-containing drugs under the Schedule V classification, and in December of last year the president signed into law the 2018 Farm Bill, allowing farmers to grow and transport industrial hemp and amending the Controlled Substances Act to exclude hemp and hemp-derived CBD.
Even U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb believes marijuana legalization at the national level is coming soon, which has the potential to shake up the legal landscape even more; just ask Canada, who is dealing with a whole new set of issues after declaring cannabis legal nationwide.
With so much uncertainty about marijuana legalization and regulation, pharmacists are right to tread cautiously. However, most recognize the need to stay informed about the latest medical marijuana research, even if it’s mostly anecdotal, and to keep pace with evolving policy in anticipation of what’s to come.
Reason #3: Dispensing mmj could be risky for pharmacists at hospitals and health care facilities.
In states where cannabis is legal, medical marijuana patients can visit a dispensary and purchase their medicine, but they can only use their mmj in legally approved locations—typically in their own homes and not in public places.
But what if a patient is injured or involved in an accident and is required to spend time at a hospital or rehabilitation facility? Legally, they cannot use their mmj on facility grounds, and the on-site pharmacy cannot dispense it unless they want to risk losing their DEA license.
So, maybe the patient goes without their medicine for a few days or weeks while in the facility. And maybe their condition worsens. Who is legally responsible if something happens?
New Jersey pharmacist Angelo Cifaldi posed a similar question recently to Leafly, using the example of a patient with epilepsy: “What happens if somebody’s in the hospital for two weeks and they don’t get the medical marijuana that they’ve been using for epilepsy, then all of the sudden they have a seizure and die?”
The hypothetical situation is one no pharmacist or medical professional wants to think about, and it drives home the importance of legalizing marijuana at the federal level in order to establish uniform standards with regard to pharmacies and medical cannabis.
Interestingly, a handful of states have made it a priority from the beginning to include pharmacists in the medical marijuana conversation.
These five states actually require a registered pharmacist in every dispensary.
In 2012, when Connecticut became the seventeenth state to legalize medical marijuana, it was mandated that only a board-certified pharmacist could dispense the product to patients.
Since then, Arkansas, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania have followed the Constitution State’s lead, which in time may prove beneficial as mmj advocates at the state and federal level work to better align the medical cannabis and health care communities.
However, pharmacists in the 20-something remaining states where cannabis is legal are likely still hesitant about jumping on the medical marijuana bandwagon—so don’t expect to see your favorite strain at Walgreens anytime soon.
Then again, who knows what tomorrow will bring?
The number of medical marijuana advocates continues to grow.
Highly regarded organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Epilepsy Foundation and the American Medical Association (AMA) have petitioned the federal government for more research and a lower drug classification for marijuana.
Their actions, combined with those of cannabis-supportive state and federal legislators and advocacy groups, could provide the momentum needed to finally convince the U.S. government to decriminalize marijuana.
Your health and well-being come first at Desert Rose Dispensary.
Our knowledgeable and compassionate budtenders take pride in listening to our patients, treating them with respect, and helping them choose from a variety of premium-quality medical marijuana products to help them feel better.
If you want to try medical marijuana as a treatment for your qualifying condition but don’t know where to start, be sure to talk to us about our referral program for new patients. Then, once you receive your Arizona mmj patient card, come visit our state-licensed dispensary in North Phoenix on the corner of 7th Avenue and Happy Valley Road.
Our new extended hours are 8:00AM to 10:00PM, seven days a week, with tax-free hours from 8:00AM to 10:00AM and 8:00PM to 10:00PM. Be sure to ask about the latest dispensary deals while you’re there!