Medical Marijuana Legislation and the Pharmacist

Mar 14, 2019 | Independent Pharmacy Insights, Pharmacy Growth

Medical Marijuana Legislation and the Pharmacist’s Role

Medical marijuana (cannabis) is an emerging therapy that has received an increase in attention and scrutiny, in recent years. Legal, ethical, and social controversies continue to swirl around the drug and its use as a valid pharmaceutical.

Concerns over the safe administration, packaging, adverse health effects, and dispensing of the drug continues to fuel discussions surrounding legalization on local, state, and federal levels. And while the number of states that have passed medical marijuana laws continues to grow, federal regulations haven’t moved any closer toward legalizing cannabis.

In states that have passed medical marijuana laws, the topic remains as a turbulent issue for pharmacists. Knowing how these laws work on a federal and state level, and how they conflict, while keeping an eye on possible changes future legislation could bring, will be key to pharmacists understanding their roles in relation to this polarizing legislation.

Federal vs. State Laws

Federally, marijuana is recognized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA’s) Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act (Controlled Substances Act) of 1970 as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning there is a high potential for abuse, no accepted medicinal use in treatment in the United States, and lacks accepted safety data for use of the treatment under medical supervision.

But legislation appears to be quickly changing. For example, more than half (30) of the states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation legalizing marijuana for medicinal use on a restricted basis. So how does a local pharmacy reconcile state laws and federal regulations that contradict each other? Very simply, they can’t. Knowing your state’s laws, however, will be key in understanding how medical marijuana legislation can, does, or will affect a pharmacist’s role in the community.

For example, out of the 30 states that have passed medical marijuana laws, 5 of those states have provided roles for pharmacies in the dispensing process:

• Arkansas requires each marijuana dispensary to appoint a pharmacist consultant;
• Connecticut permits only pharmacists to apply for and obtain a marijuana dispensary license;
• Minnesota permits only pharmacists to give final approval for the distribution of medical marijuana to a patient;
• New York requires a pharmacist to be on the premises and supervise the activities within a marijuana dispensing facility whenever the facility is open or in operation; and
• Pennsylvania requires primary marijuana dispensing facilities to have a physician or pharmacist onsite whenever the facility is open to receive patients and caregivers.

Medical Marijuana Laws And Pharmacies

Because marijuana is outlawed under federal law, no individual, including pharmacists, can legally dispense marijuana, even if their states have passed medical marijuana laws. To further complicate matters, because marijuana is still outlawed under federal law, healthcare field contracts generally contain clauses that prohibit a contracting pharmacy from violating federal laws. Finally, due to these federal laws, there are many financial institutions who will not lend to businesses that deal in medical marijuana.

All of this can make dealing with medical marijuana a legal and logistical nightmare for local pharmacies.

This is unfortunate because pharmacists are often the first line in data collection on emerging therapies, they’re highly trained in dispensing controlled, addictive, and highly regulated drugs, and the patient/pharmacist relationship would also allow the pharmacist to help patients adhere to their regimen, discuss dosage for, and administration of the drug, while also allowing the pharmacist to monitor any adverse effects.

Medical Marijuana and Patient Populations

In 2018, medical marijuana sales topped out at $4.5 Billion. By 2024, it’s projected to jump to $37.3 Billion. And with over 28,000 legal cannabis businesses in the United States, these figures show no signs of slowing down.

As for patients, 84% of people polled approved of medical marijuana use in the United States. And if statewide passage of laws legalizing cannabis continue on their current upward trend, the chances of federal laws being passed in support of medical marijuana may increase exponentially.

The Bottom Line

Although there is no avenue for pharmacists to dispense and/or manage medical marijuana without currently breaking federal law, at this point in time, statistics show rapidly growing support for the medical use of cannabis across the country, making it more likely that federal law could soon change to reflect the majority of states’ laws regarding the medical use of cannabis.

Until that time, pharmacy advocates should remain focused on efforts to bring about state legislation that would allow pharmacists to dispense the drug should federal restrictions be overturned, while also shielding pharmacies from legal or contractual jeopardy in the meantime.

Closing Thoughts

To navigate all of the expected – and unexpected – changes surrounding medicinal marijuana laws, community pharmacies should partner up with companies like alliantRx. We’re dedicated to helping you maintain the health of your patients, keep your stakeholders satisfied, and improve your pharmacy’s bottom line.

If you’re not a member yet, join us. If you are a member, make sure you’re leveraging your benefits and maximizing your pharmacy’s success.