Last fall, I signed up for the Medical Marijuana Program in Pennsylvania. I received my card in October and was eager to explore the dispensaries in the surrounding area. However, upon my first visit to a local dispensary, I was immediately overwhelmed.
Although I’ve regularly visited states with adult-use recreational cannabis for the past four years, I quickly realized that medical only was a whole new market with different regulations. For instance, you can’t buy single, pre-rolled joints in Pennsylvania like you can in Washington.
Fortunately, Pennsylvania dispensaries employ pharmacists to help patients navigate the inventory and learn how the products can best treat their ailments. These cannabis pharmacists don’t approve patients for the program, but rather, work closely with the patients to figure out their treatment options.
“Pharmacists play a critical role as medication experts,” says Victoria Starr, pharmacist and director of advocacy and public relations for Gesundheit Foods. “We have extensive knowledge that’s put to use every day to ensure better patient health and outcomes. This expertise is applied through science and research, through educating the next generation, and through transforming patient needs into services.”
I met with a pharmacist some two months after receiving my card, and admittedly didn’t know what to expect. For the benefit of those who may find themselves in a similar situation, here is what I wish I would’ve known before my first appointment.
Do Your Cannabis Research
Possessing a basic understanding of the science of cannabis, particularly terpenes and cannabinoids, better informs patients of how care providers will find products tailored to their symptoms and needs.
“The most important part of preparation before coming into a dispensary to meet with the staff is understanding that cannabis is not a perfect science just yet,” says Mahja Sulemanjee, director of education and outreach at Herbology dispensary. “We have to find the right amount of doses for each person, the right cannabinoids and the right terpene profiles.”
Unfortunately, not all states have systems in place like Pennsylvania and Oregon, under which cannabis patients have access to a pharmacist, making self-education even more critical. Jessie Gill, registered nurse and founder of Marijuana Mommy, emphasizes the importance of community forums, such as Facebook groups for patients who are navigating medical marijuana without the help of professionals.
“In California, cannabis nurses aren’t allowed to talk about dosage at all,” Gill explains, whereas in New Jersey, patients must have an initial care appointment with a counselor to learn about different strains and consumption methods. But again, Gill hastens to add, “It’s not a health care professional, just someone trained by the dispensary.
“I always encourage people before they make their first purchase to educate themselves about the methods of consumption, because they vary a great deal,” Gill continues. “I also encourage them to find out which strains are available at the dispensary they’re going to and to research those strains.”
Sulemanjee recommends, even for those who aren’t registered patients just yet, to attend educational events in the local community, such as those hosted by dispensaries.
When It Comes To Cannabis, Know Your Medical History
Upon arrival for the first session at a dispensary, patients will fill out paperwork that informs the provider of their conditions and symptoms.
Starr has been working with patients in the Portland, Oregon area for the past three years. She requires new patients to fill out a comprehensive intake form, which includes medical history, age, list of medications and past experiences with cannabis.
Those with chronic conditions are aware of their symptoms, but it may be helpful for them to start with the more severe symptoms they’re looking to treat. As someone with post-traumatic stress disorder, I have a wide range of both mental and physical symptoms, but the most urgent are traumatic flashbacks and insomnia — something I realized during my appointment after not really giving any prior thought to it.
Schedule A Dispensary Appointment
Medical staff at dispensaries aren’t always on-site and available for walk-ins like budtenders are, so it’s wise to make an appointment ahead of time. In a city like Philadelphia, patients are often able to schedule an appointment on the same day or the day prior, usually by phone.
“The session is done by phone appointment on a HIPAA-certified phone line,” Starr explains. “Once the client has filled out the intake form online, they can submit additional health records, up to 24 hours before their appointment.”
For those people located in states where pharmacists are not on-site at dispensaries, it’s still helpful to call ahead. A dispensary may have other staff, such as care counselors or budtenders, that are competent in providing recommendations for specific medical conditions.
Be Honest About What You’re Going Through
For a provider to determine treatment options, open communication is incredibly important — not only will this help them to gain better insight into your condition, but they can rule out what doesn’t work, too.
“If the protocol that I recommend is not working, it’s important that the client lets me know,” Starr explains. “Some conditions are harder [to treat] than others, and it’s important that clients remain patient and follow up with me if needed.”
I received a follow-up call from my doctor within two weeks of seeing her, and I was able to report back how my body responded to the products. The cannabis pharmacist said that my feedback would be helpful to other patients living with PTSD.
However, patients don’t need to overshare about their experiences. When asked whether patients should disclose prior cannabis use, Sulemanjee said it’s not necessary information, especially since so many people are hesitant to be straightforward and open about their history with cannabis.
For those looking for guidance on their cannabis journey, getting care from a medical professional such as a pharmacist at a dispensary can be a positive, healing resource. Due diligence and ensuring you’re organized before meeting with a professional will help maximize the benefits of the session.