By Dr. Joseph Parker

Nearly two-thirds of oncologists and pain management specialists say they are worried about the legal repercussions of recommending medical cannabis to their patients. This is not an unreasonable fear.

According to one survey, 60% of doctors fear professional stigma, and for good reason. I have seen colleagues call the DEA to report that a physician who certified patients for cannabis was selling marijuana from their office.  As absurd as this might seem, once the DEA gets rolling, they can always find an excuse to prosecute a physician treating pain or addiction. 

Cannabis may soon be moved from a Schedule I controlled substance, with no approved medical use, to a less restrictive Schedule III, where it would be regulated like codeine. This might relax some of those physicians, but I’m not sure it will.

There are many politicians and law enforcement officers who simply believe that marijuana is evil. The extreme was former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who said at one time that marijuana was “only slightly less awful” than heroin. 

Sessions may truly believe this, but the comparison has no basis.  Heroin can cause respiratory depression and death.  Cannabis cannot.  Heroin works on the endorphin receptors in the brain to trigger a dopamine-mediated reward response, which can lead to what I call “true” addiction. 

Cannabis works predominately through the endocannabinoid system, though it can indirectly influence the release of dopamine and other brain areas associated with the reward system. That’s because the endocannabinoid system and CB1 receptors play a regulatory role in the release of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine.

When tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) binds to CB1 receptors, it can affect the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters, which contributes to the pleasurable and rewarding effects associated with cannabis use.

I am not saying that someone cannot develop a cannabis substance use disorder or dependence. They certainly can, just like you can with caffeine, sugar or gambling, for that matter.  What I’m saying is that cannabis can make people feel good and want more, but it is nowhere near as dangerous as heroin.  It is also not neurotoxic, like methamphetamine, which can cause the death of brain cells with a single use. 

Some studies actually show a neuroprotective effect from cannabis. And, when taken by itself, cannabis cannot cause an overdose death. This is important. 

Every time the U.S. government targets something, they pay an army of statisticians to generate scary-sounding numbers. For example, you will hear claims that a rise in fatal car accidents was “associated” with cannabis. What exactly does that mean?  It means that a large percentage of accidents involve people who use cannabis, which is unsurprising since about 40% of the adult U.S. population has or is using cannabis.

Those same accidents show a much higher correlation with caffeine.  Caffeine use could be “associated” with probably 90% of all car accidents.  But correlation, of course, does not prove causation. 

These arguments present no evidence that cannabis caused the accidents.  However, the news media can get sloppy about scientific accuracy.  A study will say that a certain number of accidents “involved” cannabis, and the media will report that the cannabis “caused” the accident.

For some reason, Sessions was also obsessed with CBD (cannabidiol). CBD is not THC, which is psychoactive and has a significant effect on a user’s mental processes.  CBD is considered non-psychoactive by a majority of experts, including the World Health Organization.

THC has a higher affinity for CB1 receptors, which are primarily found in the brain and central nervous system, and is a partial agonist for both CB1 and CB2 receptors. Activation of CB1 can cause euphoria and relaxation. It also alters sensory perception, impairs short-term memory, induces anxiety and paranoia, and impairs motor coordination.

CBD does not directly activate those receptors or have those effects. It is instead considered a negative allosteric modulator of CB1 receptors. CBD modifies the CB1 receptor response to THC and actually moderates some of the psychoactive effects of THC.  

There is also evidence that CBD can be anxiolytic and antipsychotic, while THC has been linked (not proven) to be associated with schizophrenia and psychosis.  THC can lead to the release of dopamine, which accounts for the euphoria, but at too low a level to be compared with more addictive substances.

CBD has been found in at least one study to be effective in the treatment of heroin addiction, and in another study to increased motivation, possibly giving us something to treat symptoms of schizophrenia.

Does this all mean it is safe to recommend cannabis to your patients?  Not really. While cannabis has been shown in several replicated studies to be helpful in the treatment of chronic pain, right now it is not safe for doctors to prescribe or recommend. 

Even in states where cannabis is legal for medical use and federal courts have upheld the right of physicians to recommend it, I would argue that the DEA takes a different view.

In the recent prosecution of a physician for “overprescribing” opiates, prosecutors claimed at a press conference that they started investigating the doctor after a call from local police regarding an overdose death.  Evidence later showed this was not the case.  The doctor was actually first targeted for agreeing to certify patients for their state’s medical cannabis program. 

You can help educate your patients about cannabis, but send them on to someone who does not prescribe controlled substances. Until physician rights are restored and protected in this country, it’s just not safe to recommend cannabis.

Joseph Parker, MD, is Chief Science Officer and Operations Officer at Advanced Research Concepts, a company developing innovative solutions for the complex challenges of space travel and space-related medical issues.  In clinical practice, Dr. Parker specialized in emergency medicine and served as Director of Emergency Medicine at two hospitals. Prior to that, he had a distinguished career in the U.S. Marines and Air Force.

By Dr. Joseph Parker Nearly two-thirds of oncologists and pain management specialists say they are worried about the legal repercussions of recommending medical cannabis to their patients. This is not an unreasonable fear. According to one survey, 60% of doctors fear professional stigma , and fo   Read More