With medical marijuana legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, you’d think there would be more medical students learning how to recommend it. But a new study by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri found that medical training is not keeping up with the growth of legal medical marijuana.
Medical Schools and MMJ
In the study, researchers surveyed medical school deans, residents and fellows and discovered that medical marijuana is barely being addressed. They even examined a curriculum database maintained by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
“Medical education needs to catch up to marijuana legislation,” said senior author Laura Jean Bierut, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University (WU) and a member of the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse.
She added: “Physicians in training need to know the benefits and drawbacks associated with medical marijuana so they know when or if, and to whom, to prescribe the drug.”
Doctors are being asked to guide patients although most of them have no training, explained Dr. Bierut. The WU research team sent surveys to school deans at 172 med schools in North America, which a short search concluded is just about all of them.
They received 101 replies, according to PsychCentral. Two-thirds of the respondents said their graduates were not prepared to prescribe medical marijuana while 25 percent of school deans said their students weren’t even equipped to answer questions about it.
Researchers also surveyed 258 medical residents and fellows who earned their degrees from other schools before enrolling at WU School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
Nearly 90 percent of those respondents felt they weren’t prepared to prescribe MMJ. Similarly, 85 percent said they hadn’t received any education about it while in med school or during their residencies.
Based on data from the AAMC database, only nine percent of medical schools had taught their students the bare minimum about MMJ.
Lack of Training is a Problem for New Doctors
Under a 2004 Federal Court decision, physicians are permitted to discuss and recommend—not prescribe—cannabis to patients. But what’s there to say if they don’t have the information themselves?
“As a future physician, it worries me,” said first author Anastasia B. Evanoff. “We need to know how to answer questions about medical marijuana’s risks and benefits, but there is a fundamental mismatch between state laws involving marijuana and the education physicians-in-training receive at medical schools throughout the country.”
In a recent example of this problem, the University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy canceled plans to offer training for those who work in the medical marijuana industry.
As reported by the Baltimore Sun, the university cited legal concerns when it asked pharmacy school officials to cancel the classes.
With marijuana classified as a Schedule I drug and research being scanty and often contradictory—especially under the science deniers and strident anti-cannabis warriors in the White House—universities are in a bind.
So, what’s to be done? “You address the controversy,” says co-researcher Dr. Carolyn Dufault, professor and assistant dean of education at WU. “You say, ‘This is what we know,’ and you guide students to the points of controversy. You also point out where there may be research opportunities.”
The authors of the new study believe that as more states legalize MMJ and recreational pot, doctors need to have at least enough training to answer patients’ questions.
“More medical students are now getting better training about opioids, for example,” said Evanoff. “But if a patient were to ask about medical marijuana, most medical students wouldn’t know what to say.”
One of the few mainstream medical schools offering training is the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, which began offering medical marijuana courses in the spring of 2016.