Medical Advice From Marijuana Dispensaries Should Be Explicitly Prohibited

Photo Credit: Randall Benton

The researchers posed as pregnant women eight weeks into their pregnancy. They called 400 marijuana dispensaries in Colorado and asked the staffers who answered if they recommended any products to treat first-trimester nausea.

Nearly 70 percent recommended treating morning sickness with a cannabis product — most often an edible. More than a third, 36 percent, stated cannabis was safe to use while pregnant. As for their source of this imparted wisdom, 65 percent of the dispensary employees said they based their recommendations on their personal opinions, often personal experience.

Not even a third, 31.8 percent, recommended the most prudent course of action (which wasn’t particularly beneficial to their business model) without prompting: consult a health care professional. Some even recommended against asking a doctor questions about marijuana use during pregnancy.

“As cannabis legalization becomes more common, women should be cautioned that advice from dispensary employees might not necessarily be informed by medical evidence,” conclude the researchers in a study published May 7 in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Maine is on its way to authorizing retail sales of recreational marijuana following the Legislature’s final approval earlier this month of a framework for regulating cultivation and sales. The executive branch now has the responsibility of ironing out many of the details as officials write the rules governing how Maine’s retail marijuana market will work.

As the LePage administration starts writing those rules, it should be aware of what’s possible in a world where it’s legal to see marijuana, including recommendations from licensed retail establishments that pregnant women use cannabis to ease morning sickness. “Expanding legalization may increase use among pregnant women and may be accompanied by increased perception of safety without data to assure safety,” the authors of the cannabis-for-morning sickness study warn.

Traditional research evaluating the effects of marijuana during pregnancy is limited, in large part because of ethics: It wouldn’t be ethical to intentionally expose a fetus to marijuana for research purposes. But a 2007 study published in the journal Addiction Biology involving rats and in-utero exposure to THC, the active chemical in cannabis, found that the exposure led to “enduring cognitive impairment” in rat offspring that the researchers found was “irreversible.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists discourages medical professionals from “prescribing or suggesting the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes during preconception, pregnancy, and lactation.”

Clearly, marijuana dispensaries shouldn’t be giving out medical advice their staff members aren’t qualified to give, and from which they stand to benefit financially.

As the LePage administration works on rules detailing how the retail marijuana industry will operate in Maine, it has the opportunity to write rules that clarify the roles of those who work at marijuana retail establishments and what they can and cannot do for their customers. Those rules should include a prohibition on doling out advice that is more appropriately within the purview of a medical professional. The administration’s rules should also address enforcement of such a provision, perhaps making it akin to enforcement of the legal prohibition on marijuana sales to someone under age 21.

At the same time, the medical culture in Maine will have to adapt to an environment in which marijuana is a legal substance, so patients don’t fear asking their doctors questions about the appropriateness of marijuana use.