Medical schools cover the body’s systems, diseases and medications from the odd and obscure to the routine — but it seems they aren’t teaching students much about a not-so-new trend: cannabis.
According to a study published in late 2017 from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, only 9% of medical schools had documented curriculums on medical cannabis.
Since researchers gathered those numbers, the number of states with medical programs has jumped to 33, and tens of thousands of people in the Garden State have become medical pot patients under an expanded list of qualifying conditions to use. Millions of people buy over-the-counter CBD, or cannabidiol, products derived from marijuana’s legal and mild cousin, hemp, to treat ailments like anxiety and inflammation.
But how are New Jersey’s four medical schools keeping up with the new treatment?
Only one said it taught students about marijuana as more than a potentially addictive drug. That means young doctors, hopefully the best and brightest, likely will not be ready to have informed discussions with patients about medical cannabis.
The sheer amount of coursework to cover in med school makes major additions difficult. But the politicization of cannabis, fueled by the fact that the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a federally illegal Schedule 1 drug, has the process dragging, too.
“The medical establishment itself often regards the whole subject of cannabis as a political third rail. Many are reluctant to initiate the discussion,” said Dr. David Nathan, the president of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.
“With as much as we know about the science of cannabis, the endocannabinoid system, and the medical use of cannabis being so widespread, it behooves the medical schools to devote the time to it that general physicians are going to need.”
Researchers are still learning about the endocannabinoid system, which regulates immune response, cell communication, appetite and metabolism, memory and more, since its discovery in 1992. The system is full of cannabinoid receptors, which process compounds like CBD or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that makes a user feel high.
That’s what allows CBD and marijuana to alleviate pain, anxiety and other issues.
At Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, cannabis comes up in neurology psychology for second year students. Dr. Petros Levounis said the class touches on the endocannabinoid system, CBD and THC, and the components of marijuana, and has offered the information for at least five years.
“We have a particular interest and expertise in this medical school in addiction medicine,” he said. “We have a fellowship in addiction medicine. We have extensive medical services, research.”
Medical cannabis has begun to play a larger role in weaning patients off opioids for chronic pain, and many welcome the change, as the plant does not have the addictive character of prescription pain killers.
Cooper Medical School of Rowan University addresses marijuana along with issues of substance abuse and pharmokinetics, the branch of pharmacology concerned with the movement of drugs within the body, said Sharon Clark, a spokeswoman for the school. But researchers there are studying the endocannabinoid system further, she said.
A spokesperson for Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University declined to comment on the school’s marijuana-related curriculum, and spokespeople for the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers did not respond to several inquiries.
Dr. Nathan said he’s “confident” medical schools in other parts of the country must be doing better than the four in New Jersey. But doctors are curious and engaged on the topic, with more than 1,000 doctors in the state authorize medical marijuana for patients.
Some aren’t surprised. It takes time to shake up the establishment. But changes are likely coming.
“Younger doctors tend to be more open-minded about new treatments,” Dr. Nathan said. “The medical establishment has been slow to embrace the science of cannabis. And the medical establishment is also highly influential in the decisions about medical cannabis education.”