Walgreen's Surprises Medical Cannabis Advocates?
The subject of medical cannabis has been a source of widespread debate for decades. This has become even more true in April 2016, when pharmacy giant Walgreen's published a blog post entitled “Clarifying Clinical Cannabis”.
Walgreen’s post defines medical cannabis, lists the illnesses and conditions it can help manage, and outlines its various methods of administration. It also explains how the substance affects the body, what its potential side effects are, and how patients can get a prescription for it. The article even talks about why the use of clinical cannabis has been debated for so long, pointing out that it’s associated with negative effects but has also been discovered to help with appetite improvement, muscle stiffness, and pain relief.
The blog post, which was written by Dahlia Sultan (a resident pharmacist at Walgreen's and the University of Illinois-Chicago) surprised many medical cannabis advocates. The fact alone that Walgreen's decided to talk about this topic was a shock, considering that many corporations either decline to comment about it or avoid the subject altogether.
A lot of people were also astonished at the neutral tone of Walgreen’s blog post and the informative approach it took. Many took this as a good sign, since the post doesn’t only open the doors for discussion but also educates patients that opioid painkillers are not the only option. In fact, the blog post states, “If you’d like more information about the use of medical marijuana.” This is an important message since a lot of patients nowadays are dealing with chronic pain, but their doctors are hesitant to suggest clinical cannabis.
Alan Brochstein of New Cannabis Ventures sums up the thoughts of many medical cannabis advocates by saying, “I can’t recall any S&P 500 company ever sharing such a supportive view.” This is particularly even more significant for Walgreen's which, as Brochstein points out, is actively involved in the lives of patients and is considered to be a reliable source of healthcare advice.
Pharmacies and Medical Cannabis
Another interesting sentence from Walgreen's blog post is its disclaimer that the company is “not a licensed medical marijuana provider.” According to Ricardo Baca of The Cannabist, Walgreens might have recognized that pharmacies may soon get the permit to be a legal supplier. This is especially true now that prescription drugs made of cannabis derivatives are working toward getting an FDA permit. Brochstein also asks if Walgreen's has smelled a huge opportunity, considering that Canadian pharmacies have stated that they want to be a part of the medical cannabis program.
It might be true that Walgreen's wants to cash in on the clinical cannabis trend and is taking steps toward getting the license to sell the substance. However, this doesn’t change the fact that, as of the moment, pharmacies in the U.S. are not allowed to supply this substance — even in states where the use of medical and recreational cannabis is already allowed. Any pharmacist who disobeys this rule will lose his or her license and will no longer be allowed to dispense controlled substances to patients.
There are many reasons why U.S. pharmacies are not allowed to dispense medical cannabis. One of the biggest reasons is that pharmacies are required to sell only drugs that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Cannabis, unfortunately, is a long way from getting FDA approval.
In fact, it’s stuck in a catch-22: it’s classified as a Schedule I substance, which means it has a high potential for abuse and has “no currently accepted medical use”. (Heroin is another substance placed under this category.) This makes it difficult for researchers to study cannabis and identify its medical uses, which would have helped remove it from Schedule I and downgrade it to a less severe schedule.
Because of this classification, researchers find it hard to get grants and even obtain cannabis plants to experiment on. This means that they can’t put cannabis through the standard drug development research process, like what commercially available medications have gone through. This process is important since it would have allowed scientists to study the potentially active chemicals in the plant and understand how they interact with each other and with other substances. These information, in turn, can help reduce the public stigma of cannabis and convince the government, the healthcare system, and patients that medical cannabis is a viable treatment option.
It’s also important to note that many Big Pharma companies are not interested in creating FDA-approved drugs based on cannabis — simply because it doesn’t have a lot of earning potential. They can’t claim ownership of cannabis outright since it’s impossible to patent a plant. This means they’d have to spend time and money on developing an extraction process for one of cannabis’s active chemicals then file a patent for that process. However, even this won’t give them protection since other companies can still extract the chemical using virtually the same procedure with slight variations.
The legalization of medical and recreational cannabis use has also discouraged Big Pharma from pushing the matter forward. After all, if people can easily buy the substance from dispensaries, why would they opt for more expensive versions? This lack of assurance in a stable market has resulted to a slowdown in the development of FDA-approved cannabis-based drugs.
The Future of Medical Cannabis
Fortunately, the future of clinical cannabis isn’t bleak. Many organizations and companies are swimming against the current to learn more about the plant and its active chemicals and discover how they can be used in the medical setting. British company GW Pharmaceuticals has been studying a drug called Sativex, which is made of THC and CBD (the two major chemicals from cannabis). The Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies, meanwhile, wants to compare cannabis smoking and vaporizing to see which is the safer administration method.
Some countries have also realized that dispensing drugs through pharmacies is a smart step to take. The Canadian Pharmacy Association, for example, has expressed its belief that pharmacies provide the safest means of dispensing cannabis, compared to dispensaries and compassion clubs. This approach will hopefully spread to the United States and eventually make it possible for the substance to be sold in pharmacies.
Organizations are even providing training to help people become more knowledgeable in the clinical use of cannabis. One of these is Americans For Safe Access, which has created the Medical Cannabis Advocate's Training Center for those who want to learn more about citizen lobbying, grassroots campaigning, and other activities.