As a patient advocate, I have offered medical cannabis support to friends, family, and quite a bit of strangers since I first came out of the cannabis closet nearly a decade ago. After speaking up about my desire to fight for patient rights to use medical cannabis as medicine, it opened many doors to meet a wide range of Pennsylvanians suffering from many treatment resistant conditions that feel that they have run out of ways to feel well.
A worthy aspect of the PA Medical Marijuana Program (or MMJ for short) is that the Department of Health requires all patents to see a licensed pharmacist before making their first dispensary purchase. In fact, all dispensaries are required to have a licensed physician or pharmacist on-site during business hours. If a dispensary has more than one location, a physician or pharmacist must be on site at one, but the other(s) could have a physician’s assistant, or certified registered nurse practitioner.
I feel that there is no one more qualified than a pharmacist to help patients understand cannabis, which strains work best for them, and how their pharmaceuticals could potentially interact (or how cannabis can help with drug’s side effects). Each pharmacist is required by the DOH to complete a comprehensive 4-hour training program on cannabinoid pharmacology.
When patients meet with cannabis pharmacists they help to understand the importance of terpenes and how this directly contributes to your personal reaction to MMJ. Terpenes are naturally occurring compounds in plants, and this explains how cannabis gets its pungent aroma and contributes to its flavor. More importantly, terpenes found in MMJ are listed right on the packaging of every PA product, giving insights into which strain can give you the relief that you are looking for.
Every person has a unique endocannabinoid system. This means that cannabis will affect each of us a bit differently. When looking for relief from a certain medical condition, finding the best strain takes time, and your local cannabis pharmacist can help.
MEET DR. VRABEL
This month, I interviewed Dr. Lauren Vrabel, a cannabis pharmacist that works for a medical marijuana dispensary by day and is also a Scientific Advisor for The Cannigma, a consumer-facing media platform that delivers evidence-based and expert-backed information about cannabis. She has spent time at the PA Senate, advocating for better cannabis DUI laws, as well as improvements for the medical program. She’ll soon be guest lecturing at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy as well.
I asked Dr. Vrabel what led her to work in the cannabis industry, and she explained that when she worked as a retail pharmacist, she was dealing with a wide range of patients daily. After being asked by a patient what she knew about cannabis, she realized that she hadn’t really learned anything about it in pharmacy school, and took it upon herself to dive into the research and get knowledgeable on the topic. She was surprised to discover that not only was cannabis safe, but there was a lot of promise for its therapeutic potential for many conditions. This inspired her to dig even deeper which led to a greater passion to learn even more and to begin educating others. Like many cannabis pharmacists, she is doing her part to help end the stigma.
EDUCATION IS KEY
We know that the stigmas still remain in our local community around cannabis, and Dr. Vrabel says, “We need more education everywhere in order to share the correct information, and a huge opportunity lies within our medical communities. There are plenty of medical providers who haven’t stayed up-to-date with the latest research and continue to deny cannabis’ place as a medication.”
How can we inspire our medical professionals locally to care to learn about cannabis and the endocannabinoid system when it’s not taught in medical school? My hope is that leaders like Dr. Vrabel and the advocacy work that she is doing with the State will open the minds of not only our medical community but of our legislatures.
The stigmas that linger can create misconceptions around the plant that will continue to give cannabis a bad name. Dr. Vrabel was asked what best advice she would give someone that wanted to try cannabis for the first time and she said, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and consume in the right setting – somewhere that is comfortable to you and with other responsibly consuming patients that you trust.”
The phrase “set + setting” is often used when referring to the use of psychoactive substances like cannabis and psychedelics, and it’s very important to how one experiences plant medicines.
Set refers to one’s mindset (thoughts, moods, expectations) and setting is the physical and social environment for the experience. These conditions affect a patient’s reaction to the plant and can make or break your experience. Be kind to yourself and don’t try new substances when you’re not in the right mindset or in a setting that can cause more harm than healing.
There is so much to learn about cannabis, and once you dive into the science behind the plant you can find a fascinating lesson from Mother Nature. She is giving us a special tool to help many medical conditions with a plant that even scientists find quite astonishing.