Why Don’t More Doctors Recommend Medical Marijuana?

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Yesterday I was at an appointment with a new doctor for a surgical consult, and within the first two minutes of our conversation, he said “I think medical marijuana would really benefit you. Are you interested in learning more about it?”

For someone who lives in a state like California, this may seem old hat. And I certainly know that if I wanted, I could simply google and find a doctor in my area who advertised as a cannabis-friendly physician. But in the course of my cancer treatment I have seen literally dozens of doctors in New Mexico, New Jersey, and Massachusetts – all medical cannabis states – and NOT ONCE before yesterday has a physician I went to based on referral or surgical expertise EVER brought up medical cannabis to me. And every single time I have initiated a conversation about medical cannabis with my doctors in the past, I’ve been met with skepticism, reluctance, or eye rolls. So as you can imagine, yesterday’s conversation was a huge hallelujah moment for me.

My new doctor seemed pleasantly surprised that I was already familiar with the benefits of medical cannabis.

“They lied to us,” he sighed, explaining that he hadn’t learned about the endocannabinoid system in medical school. He told me that his father had passed away from lung cancer and during treatment he’d tried Marinol, which gave him great relief. This inspired the doctor to learn as much as he could about medical cannabis. He attended Oaksterdam University with his wife, who is also a surgeon, and went to a 3-day medical cannabis conference, read up on the literature, and became a believer. He has the “medical cannabis conversation” with new patients every day…but it was the very first time any of my physicians has approached the topic with me, despite the fact that I see physicians whose entire caseload would benefit from cannabis use.

Obviously, there are many physicians who understand what an important role medical cannabis can have in the treatment of cancer, neuropathy, chronic pain, and the rest of the laundry list of conditions I’ve been diagnosed with. And yet until yesterday, none of the oncologists (4), surgeons (6), pain management specialists (3), or any of the other assorted specialists I’ve seen have seemed the slightest bit interested in speaking with me about it, and they certainly haven’t brought it up themselves.

So why, when medical cannabis is such a prevalent issue in our political landscape, are more doctors not on board? Why should I have to go to a “medical marijuana doctor” in addition to my regular doctors because the best specialists in their respective fields aren’t cannabis-friendly? Have I just been unlucky in choosing doctors or is this really a thing?

Personally, I think it’s a combination of a lot of factors. In choosing doctors with good track records, I’ve seen a lot of older physicians – ones who were not, as my doctor pointed out, taught anything about medical cannabis in school. I imagine that when many of these doctors were coming of age in the 1960’s, they were studying hard and focusing on their careers while the hippies got a head start on learning about the endocannabinoid system through firsthand experience. Sure, the two aren’t completely mutually exclusive (think Dr. Lester Grinspoon or Dr. Andrew Weil), but in many ways, the societal taboos against cannabis clearly created a stereotypical division of “scholars” and “stoners” in past generations.

So how can we change this? I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Sure, we can push for medical school reform to create a new generation of physicians who are educated about the benefits of medical cannabis, but it’s going to be an awfully long time before they’re the ones seeing patients who seek doctors with impressive resumes.

I choose my physicians based on recommendations, referrals, and reputations, and I have to admit that surgical skills and competency rank highest on my list of qualifications. Fortunately, New Mexico (where I currently live) has no “physician registry” like New Jersey’s, so there is no way for me to know which physicians covered by my insurance are “medical cannabis friendly.” And if in my first interaction with new doctors I ruled out those who weren’t medical cannabis friendly, I have a feeling I’d spend all my time doctor shopping…And what cancer patient – or any person whatsoever – has time for that?

I believe the best way to create awareness among doctors is for physicians who understand and appreciate the benefits of medical cannabis to become more vocal. This may seem simple, but sadly, it’s not, for a variety of reasons.

For every Dr. Grinspoon, there are dozens if not hundreds of “Dr. Worriers,” like my New Jersey neurologist. This particular Dr. Worrier was young, smart, and savvy about medical cannabis. When I brought it up to her – as I have done dozens of times with dozens of doctors – she replied to me in hushed tones, as if the exam room we were in was bugged by the feds.

“I wish I could sign up for the New Jersey Physician Registry,” she whispered to me. “But my bosses are so conservative that I would lose my job if I did that.” And with a young family to raise, medical school loans to pay, and a developing career to consider that is largely based on reputation, who was I to blame her? Not everyone is a born activist.

I truly believe that it is the established physicians who believe in the benefits of medical cannabis, those who own successful practices, or teach in renowned medical schools, who must lead the charge in creating a medical community where cannabis is not spoken of in hushed tones or saddled with the fear of career suicide. Change must come from within the medical community.

Normalizing cannabis use will go a long way in changing the societal implications of physicians taking the plunge and becoming cannabis-friendly. And no, I don’t mean in the absurd way Cannabrand is trying to do so in the social realm. I mean a true culture shift through acknowledgment within the medical community that will help physicians feel more comfortable and confident about getting on board with medical cannabis.

So if you have a doctor who is already “cannabis friendly,” please don’t assume that you have nothing to teach them about medical cannabis, because you can teach your doctor how to become an activist.

You can discuss how medical culture needs to change in order to best meet the needs of patients. Invite them to the meetings of your local medical cannabis organization. Encourage them to get involved. Ask them to speak out – especially with their colleagues.

Let them know how much their opinions are valued by you, and let them know they are the best and most qualified spokespeople for true change.

For previous Ladybud articles dealing with physicians and the medical cannabis movement, click here.

Photo Credit: Luke Fildes under public domain via Wikimedia Commons