Study: Pharmacy Students Don’t Know Enough About Marijuana As a Medicine, but Want to Learn

When it comes to legal medical products, consumers can expect pharmacists to speak to the benefits and risks of particular medicines with one notable exception — cannabis.

A study published in the quarterly American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education found that pharmacy students are by and large lacking in cannabis education, and don’t feel confident in communicating marijuana laws — and they want that to change.

A team of researchers from Drake University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Iowa published “Pharmacy Student Knowledge, Confidence and Attitudes Toward Medical Cannabis and Curricular Coverage,” and found that nearly 80 percent of students surveyed believed that medical cannabis education should be added to pharmacy school curricula within the next five years.    

The researchers wanted to determine how much pharmacy students knew about which qualifying conditions were approved for medical marijuana. In addition, researchers asked how students felt about medical cannabis education in pharmacy school curriculua.  

The authors found that previously published efforts to clarify how pharmacists should deal with medical marijuana “may have underestimated the significant role that pharmacists have been asked to play within the medical cannabis programs.” The researchers also noted that new cannabinoid-based medications such as Sativex and Epidiolex require new levels of cannabis education.

The researchers sent a one-time, online questionnaire to first-, second- and third-year pharmacy students attending a private Midwestern US university. The students were required to self-evaluate both their level of knowledge and confidence of state laws and qualifying conditions.

Some of the gaps in knowledge, of the students and the researchers, seem to arise from geographic constraints.

“A major limitation of our study was that it was conducted at only one institution in a state where use of medical marijuana is not legal,” the authors wrote. “Schools of pharmacy in states where medical marijuana is approved may cover this topic in more detail and, thus, potentially produce different results.”

A Breakdown of the Demographics

  • Year: Respondents were separated into three-year ranges. 36.1 percent were first-year students, 40.8 percent were second-year students and 55 percent were third-year students.  
  • Sex: 70.6 percent of respondents were female; 29.4 percent male.

Key Findings

  • Students were able to confidently identify which conditions were not permitted to use cannabis.
  • 85 percent correctly said vertigo is not a qualifying condition and were 94 percent confident in their answer.
  • When it came to identifying qualifying conditions, students were both less confident and less accurate.
  • 51 percent of students were able to identify nausea as a qualifying condition. Only 20 percent of them were confident in their answers.
  • 79 percent of students identified cancer as a qualifying condition, but only 34 percent were confident in their answer.
  • Students were able to correctly identify epilepsy (39 percent), cancer (33 percent), anorexia (24 percent) and nausea (19 percent).
  • 95 percent of students believed hepatitis was not a qualifying condition; 99 percent were confident in their answer. Hepatitis C is a qualifying condition in the state that the study took place
  • 84 percent felt medical cannabis should be taught in an elective course; 72 percent believed it should be required.
  • 93 percent agreed that students should be taught about state laws specifically.
  • 90 percent believed that within the next five years the school should include education on counseling patients on the risks and benefits of medical cannabis.

Pharmacy Students Don’t Know A Lot About Medical Cannabis, but They Want To

According to the study, pharmacy students apparently are not able to confidently communicate the risks and benefits of cannabis use. This is an important finding, as researchers make note that “the likelihood of a graduate practicing in one of the 45 states with medical cannabis programs is quite high.” This means that students are not being prepared effectively to work with an increasing number of potential patients and providers.

Researchers concluded:

“Pharmacy schools need to consider evaluating current coverage of the subject in multiple areas of the curriculum (ie, physiology, pharmacology, therapeutics, and law). Additional coverage and curricular changes may be warranted to better prepare students for their future practice considering the increased prevalence of medical cannabis use in the United States. As schools review therapeutic topics where medical cannabis is utilized, attempts to include this information within their courses should be considered.”

Researchers also noted that:

  • “Currently, there is little coverage of medical cannabis within typical doctor of pharmacy curricula.”
  • “Many schools cover cannabis-based FDA-approved products, but these products comprise a small percentage of all cannabis products currently available.”

“Many students are familiar with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and its psychoactive effects from their general education.”

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