Why Doctors Are Slow to Embrace Medical Marijuana

By Pat Anson, Editor

Public attitudes toward marijuana have changed considerably in recent years. Voters and legislators in 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and nationwide polls show that most Americans now support legalization.

But the nation’s medical organizations – while intrigued about the potential for marijuana to treat conditions like chronic pain – have been slow to embrace cannabis. And most doctors still refuse to prescribe it, even in states where marijuana is legal.

Those conflicting attitudes were on display last week at the annual meeting of the American Pain Society (APS) in Palm Springs, California – a conference focused on pain research. Although the APS has no stated policy on marijuana, the organization chose as its keynote speaker one of the most prominent medical marijuana researchers in the world, Dr. Mark Ware.

“I’ve done presentations and sessions, and it always surprises people how much interest there is,” said Ware, who is a family physician and associate professor in Family Medicine and Anesthesia at McGill University in Montreal.

“Cannabis gives people a window to come and learn, and while they’re learning about medical cannabis they can be learning about pain management and other things. It’s a very useful magnet to get people interested in a topic that’s obviously of enormous public importance.”



Ware’s two presentations at the APS conference were well-attended, but it was mostly researchers – not practicing physicians – who were listening.

“A lot of doctors are afraid to authorize it (marijuana) because they’re afraid of losing their licenses and their practices. So there’s a lot of fear and a lot of stigma,” Ware told Pain News Network.

“I think the researchers themselves are seeing opportunities, with changing state laws and increasing evidence of efficacy, that suddenly this is becoming a drug that can be taken a bit more seriously. And I think that’s giving rise to the opportunity that maybe there’s some work we can be doing here.”

Federal laws making marijuana illegal – which are still in effect – have stymied serious research into its medical benefits. Most of the evidence so far is anecdotal or the result of small academic studies – not the in-depth and expensive clinical research that pharmaceutical companies have to conduct to get FDA approval for their drugs.

“There’s still work to be done on the safety and efficacy of these cannabinoid compounds,” says Gregory Terman, MD, an anesthesiologist who is president of the APS.  “They’re very interesting molecules. But they’re not approved for people and we don’t want to pretend they’re anywhere near ready for prime time.”

The APS currently has a committee working on a policy statement about medical marijuana.

“I think people are opening their eyes to the possibility,” said Terman. “Marijuana’s already out there, and that’s why we felt like it was important to work on a policy statement.”

The American Academy of Pain Management (AAPM) also doesn’t have a formal position on marijuana – although some members are urging the organization to take one.

“I think there’s no doubt there are substances in there that can be beneficial to some people with pain. It’s just a question of figuring out what they are and how do you get them extracted in a way so that we know what we’re giving people,” said Bob Twillman, PhD, executive director of the AAPM. “We haven’t settled on a policy because there are so many different variables and so much is up in the air that coming up with a good policy is hard to do.”

Twillman says he is being lobbied by some AAPM members to advocate for the rescheduling of marijuana from an illegal Schedule I controlled substance – the same classification the DEA has for heroin and LSD – to a Schedule II medication that can be prescribed to patients.

“I don’t think you can do that with a product like this because every batch is different. How do you standardize the dose that a patient is given? I think in a regulatory scheme of things it’s more like an herbal supplement than it is a drug,” Twillman told Pain News Network.

The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest medical group, has moderated its position on marijuana – from one of strict opposition to a grudging call for more research.

Our AMA calls for further adequate and well-controlled studies of marijuana and related cannabinoids in patients who have serious conditions for which preclinical, anecdotal, or controlled evidence suggests possible efficacy,” the AMA says in a policy statement.

“This should not be viewed as an endorsement of state-based medical cannabis programs, the legalization of marijuana, or that scientific evidence on the therapeutic use of cannabis meets the current standards for a prescription drug product.”

Until that research is done and federal laws change – which could take years – many practicing physicians are unlikely to endorse or prescribe a drug that is still technically illegal.

“I think there’s still this stigma and the lack of data and concerns about safety that will always plague that discussion as long as we don’t have it,” says Mark Ware.  “So I think there will be clinicians who will be early adopters who take this a bit more seriously and there will be others who will be almost religiously opposed to the idea. And I hope that starts to breakdown.”