Pot 101: Doctors lack knowledge about medical marijuana

marijuana leaf
Doctors face challenges in recommending medical marijuana to patients.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 28 states and the District of Columbia, but physicians lack guidelines to help them treat patients.

Doctors didn’t learn about the once-illegal drug in medical school and there are few scientific studies about marijuana use, according to an article on The JAMA Network.

For instance, the article notes that even though John Norris III, M.D., a Florida internist, took an eight-hour course about medical marijuana after The Sunshine State voted to legalize the drug last fall, he still doesn’t feel prepared to advise patients about the treatment despite the fact he passed the test. The state requires the course, co-sponsored by the Florida Medical Association and the Florida Osteopathic Medicine Association, for all physicians in the state who want to be able to recommend the treatment to their patients.

Part of the problem is there are no dosing guidelines for doctors to follow and the concentration of active ingredients can vary depending on when and where the plant was grown. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug with a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. Studies of its use are limited.

“There’s insufficient to no evidence for most of the claims [about medical marijuana],” said Donald Abrams, M.D., an oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who co-authored a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that reviewed 10,000 scientific abstracts on the health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids. He is now teaching the university’s first elective course about cannabis as medicine to first-year medical students.

Other medical schools are also looking at how they can educate future doctors. There is interest in medical marijuana as an alternative to prescription painkillers. Data from some studies have suggested that overdoses from opioid medications are lower in states where medical marijuana is legal. But for patients, finding a physician who will recommend them for treatment is difficult.