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Why don’t more doctors prescribe cannabis to their patients?

August 2, 2018
(Volodymyr Kryshtal/iStock)
Even as support for medicinal cannabis gathers momentum among voters, physicians often remain hesitant or firmly opposed to recommending cannabis to their patients. Mostly, their hesitation stems from a lack of supportive data and strong clinical trials. But when it comes to cannabis, is the science really not sufficient to support its clinical use?

To better understand why many doctors hesitate to embrace cannabis, let’s consider the factors that have plagued the pro-cannabis argument:

  • First, a lack of available scientific studies on many health outcomes leaves us with mostly anecdotal reports of its medicinal abilities. While these stories certainly have value in guiding scientific investigation, they’re ripe with bias and a spectrum of confounding factors, so they’re not sufficient on their own.
  • Next, when results suggest that cannabis is ineffective at treating a condition, or may have small benefits but substantial side effects, it’s hard to support using cannabis for that clinical condition.
  • Lastly, inconsistency in cannabis’ effects across published reports reduces confidence in the predictable and consistent therapeutic benefits of cannabis.

Let’s break these points down.

Why are there few scientific studies into cannabis’ clinical benefits?

The reason for the relative scarcity in clinical cannabis studies stems largely from its Schedule I classification by the Drug Enforcement Agency. This classification regulates how cannabis can be studied, the access scientists have to cannabis, and the financial and institutional resources that can be devoted to studying cannabis.


CBD Is a Schedule I Drug? My Shooting Pain Wonders Why.

You won’t be surprised that it’s especially challenging to acquire funding to study a drug with “currently no accepted medicinal use,” according to the definition associated with its classification. It doesn’t matter that the same drug is one of the earliest known medicines. Most scientists’ careers live and die by grant funding, and the United States government is the single largest source of science funding in the world.

So if the government is resistant to funding medicinal cannabis research, it has a major impact. (And when they do commit to funding, not everyone is happy about it. For instance, Professor Michael Morgan of Washington State University in Vancouver received funding to study the interaction between THC and morphine on pain. This research was listed in Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) list of the top 100 Wasteful Stimulus Projects).

Is the research truly not available?

It turns out, there’s a trove of clinical research studies that the public doesn’t see. Because of the federal restrictions on research in academic institutions, private companies have taken it upon themselves to gather their own data, often with the support of nurses or physicians. The data gathered are being used to optimize the therapeutic effectiveness of their own products and are revealing, so we’re told, exciting and promising results.


The Latest in Medical Cannabis Research: Summer 2018

Because these companies aren’t gaining approval through the same institutional review boards that are required for academic institutions, they’re often precluded from publishing in the peer-reviewed journals that are publicly available. Another downside is that they don’t receive the same scrutiny for the validity of their results.

Nonetheless, this privately collected trove of clinical data likely represents a significant source of clinical cannabis studies that could be used to transform the industry. But for now, few are showing their hands.

Why is the effectiveness of cannabis inconsistent across studies?

Beyond the challenge of acquiring research funding, it’s not easy—or in many cases possible—to get cannabis for clinical trials that’s consistent with what’s available to consumers.

The inability to systematically test different strains and products has traditionally led to an inability for the clinical research to support many claims by cannabis patients.

For decades, the University of Mississippi has been the only licensed facility to produce the plant for research purposes. But some researchers claim that the cannabis they receive doesn’t resemble the appearance or smell of traditional cannabis, it may be moldy, and has between 8-12% THC.

That may be fine if you’re trying to draw conclusions about the health benefit of that one particular strain, grown at that one particular site. But if that sub-optimal product also has sub-optimal medicinal benefits, is it valid to conclude that all cannabis strains and products similarly don’t have medicinal benefits? Of course not. The inability to systematically test different strains and products—many of which have been optimized for certain conditions—has traditionally led to an inability for the clinical research to support many claims by cannabis patients.


Predicting Cannabis Strain Effects From THC and CBD Levels

A less-than-ideal solution to this problem is to simply survey patients about how various medicines affect their symptoms. In this manner, cannabis consumers can be compared to a cohort using a different form of medication, or no medication at all. But often, this is the only distinguishing feature.

There’s a wide range in the frequency and history of use, not to mention the type of cannabis consumed (only recently have some studies compared THC-rich cannabis to CBD-rich cannabis) or route of administration. Would you expect someone using cannabis to treat their anxiety by smoking THC-rich cannabis 4x/day to have the same response as someone using a CBD-rich tincture 2x/day to have the same effect? Most would say no.

Why do some reports say cannabis has serious side effects while others claim it’s safe?

There’s well-established evidence in rodents and humans that too much THC can induce acute anxiety, paranoia, and even psychosis. But it’s important to note that often, these effects occur with high-THC products with little CBD. After all, most strains’ THC levels have drastically increased over the last 20 years while CBD levels have decreased. While this carries its own risk, most medical cannabis patients are not consuming massively high doses of THC. Instead, the evidence suggests that they should be using a more balanced THC:CBD or CBD-rich product for treating the majority of conditions.


Can CBD undo the anxious side effects of THC?

So what about CBD on its own? Supposedly it has minimal side effects, right? Well, it depends on what research study you read. The prominent phase III clinical trial of CBD treatment in a childhood epileptic disorder reported several side effects including diarrhea, fatigue, and somnolence. To some, those adverse effects are concerning. But is it CBD that is causing them directly? It’s unclear.

With clinical trials (such as the phase III epilepsy trial), due to ethical concerns, patients remained on their prescribed anti-epileptic medications. CBD was used as an “add-on treatment.” We know that CBD inhibits liver enzymes that are needed to metabolize other drugs, so it’s possible that some of the adverse effects are due to drug-drug interactions, and not CBD on its own. But at this point, we don’t really know, and broad research restrictions keep us from being able to figure it out.

A reader’s responsibility

It’s our responsibility to ensure that the published reports are valid. Often, positive reports of a drug’s benefits are highly scrutinized to confirm that the treatment was truly effective. For instance, many of the tests used to assess pain require the animal to move in response to a painful stimulus. But if THC has sedating effects, it can make it seem like it reduced pain when in reality, the animal was just lethargic. This is not to say that cannabis doesn’t reduce pain (loads of evidence in rodents and humans suggest it does), but we must be careful.


Cannabis Shows Great Promise in Treating Cancer—Let’s Not Wreck It With Hyperbole

But in cases where the drug was ineffective, we must also apply the same level of scrutiny. Is it possible that the drug could have had a positive treatment effect that was masked by poor methodology? The cannabis field is ripe with these examples.

The strongest cases have an established mechanism at the cellular level, a pre-clinical effect in rodent models of disease, and supporting data from clinical trials. These cases are emerging for numerous disorders and will continue so at an even faster rate thanks to the effort of scientists in countries with fewer cannabis research restrictions than the United States.

Josh Kaplan's Bio Image

Josh Kaplan

Josh Kaplan, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience at Western Washington University. He is a passionate science writer, educator, and runs a laboratory that researches cannabis' developmental and therapeutic effects.

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  • Open Minds

    The reason why cannabis works as a medicine is due to the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). The ECS is not a theory or an opinion, it’s a scientific fact. Educating doctors about the ECS is the best way to get them to start prescribing it.

    • Mcozy333

      the Doctors know of the ECS as G-protein coupled receptors ( 7 trans membrane receptors) 7TMR

  • Richard Scroggins

    Or is it simply that the pharmaceutical companies provide more kick backs and a bigger chance of keeping a steady line of patients. You make more by treating a sickness than you do by curing it. Money is all its about.

    • Paschn

      Definitely that – and “culling” the Goim.

  • Kel

    I can say with absolute certainty that MMJ for chronic migraines and sleep apnea is a very very effective secondary, or tertiary line of defense from the symptoms.
    At migraine onset it keeps the Halo on low.
    For OSA, it helps by inducing a more relaxed sleep in all stages.

  • BooBoo65

    The best thing about legalization is MJ will stop being sold as snake oil for a cure for everything. I’m sure it’s good for a few things, but the claims are a bit too much.

    • Adam Hefner

      I agree. Like its the new hit adaptogen

    • Mcozy333

      the Claims= research your endocannabinoid system…. the physiological system in all chordate life that got named after cannabis plant because of the phytocannabinoids synthased in the glandular resin of the trichomes

  • Chris Lazerious

    Well it’s due to pharmaceutical Companies (big business) lining the pockets of politicians… no mystery.

  • Grass Chief

    Well written. Lots of valuable information discussed here. Like the news and views about marijuana in the case of treatment shared here.

  • Nancy Butler

    My experience with Doctors who want to understand are rightfully concerned about interaction with other meds they have prescribed or the patient is on. Many don’t feel comfortable with the recommendation model yet. The defense isn’t there yet. Chicken and egg problem.

  • Bill Landreth

    One “big but”… I have found morphine very easy to get, even when tryinng to avoid it wheras the same doctor will not compete with the $100 doctor down the street. It is the same procedure to register with the DEA and perscribe a controlled substance but we are left alone with getnugg who will not take Medicare!

  • Paschn

    “Why Don’t More Doctors Prescribe Cannabis to Their Patients?”

    All things considered? They make more prescribing kosher pharmaceuticals? They don’t want to risk pissing off the “powers-that-be” controlling the AMA?
    From past experience, I’d hazard a guess and say all the above. If any of the readers can show me ONE THING done by those controlling/manipulating the status quo, I’d be more than willing to research it in detail to see if, somewhere along the chain of command, something nefarious was injected into it.
    After all, they not only LIED about it in the ’30’s to OUTLAW it for their owners, they coerced Mexico into outlawing it. Recently however, Mexico has decided it’s a human right to use the noble weed.
    Now let’s see how long it takes Monsanto to alter the gene, patent it, destroy the natural strain, (if they haven’t already?)

    • Mcozy333

      the active molecular compounds in cannabis ( phytocannabinoids) are activating / down regulating the G protein-coupled receptors. up to 50% of current prescribed medications are structured to target the G-proteins… 50%

      • Paschn

        Oddly enough, it’s been discovered that our bodies contain RECEPTORS for CBD, (canabidiol) and THC, (Tetrahydrocanabinol/psychoactive)

        In nefarious hands, this would be a perfect way to interrupt reproduction of a “targeted” race. Perhaps even preventing non-optic stimulation resulting in an inability to maintain an erection.

        Check this out, let me know what you think the possibilities are;

        Specifically relating to;


        This explains volumes regarding these “authorities having jurisdiction” CORRUPTING research and PREVENTING science which could cure/prevent many auto-immune diseases.

        One has to admit, after all these BILLIONS of dollars the best the AMA can come up with is the USE of CARCINOGENIC chemicals and radiation to “fight” cancers,


        The APA “deciding” back in the mid ’70’s that homosexuality was NOT a “problem” at all, simply a sexual preference.

        These FEW examples should have at the VERY LEAST made these organizations suspect, w/o independent research which is (thanks to the internet), getting OUT.

        Me thinks there’s something besides “ignorance” afoot in all this.

  • Storm Crow

    Why aren’t more doctors recommending cannabis? “For example, of the 33% of working professionals who have been prescribed antidepressants, 81% reduced their intake of the prescribed medication and 31% replaced their use of prescription antidepressants completely with cannabis. Similarly, of the 51% of parents who have been prescribed opiates, 95% have reduced their opiate use by consuming cannabis, and 36% have completely replaced opiates with cannabis.” From “MEDlCAL MARlJUANA could save $1 billion for Medicaid, study shows” (washingtonexaminer – 2017).

    “Substituting cannabis for one or more of alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription drugs was reported by 87% (n = 410) of respondents, with 80.3% reporting substitution for prescription drugs, 51.7% for alcohol, and 32.6% for illicit substances.” From “Substituting cannabis for prescription drugs, alcohol and other substances among medical cannabis patients: The impact of contextual factors” (PubMed – 2015)

    “The three main reasons cited for cannabis-related substitution are “less withdrawal” (67.7%), “fewer side-effects” (60.4%), and “better symptom management” suggesting that many patients may have already identified cannabis as an effective and potentially safer adjunct or alternative to their prescription drug regimen.” From “Cannabis as a substitute for alcohol and other drugs: A dispensary-based survey of substitution effect in Canadian medical cannabis patients” (Informa – 2013).

    • Will Cunningham

      I’m off all 5 prescriptions with cannabis oil. Now I don’t go to that doctor anymore and I”m off Medicaid which was over $600 in pills a month. I see exactly what was happening.

      • Storm Crow

        Will, it’s pretty much the same for me! The only prescription drug I take is Armor thyroid pills (thyroid insufficiency runs in Dad’s side of the family). Cannabis takes care of all the rest!



  • Will Cunningham

    There’s over 22,000 studies on cannabis on PubMed, we have the data.

  • 360dunk

    Remember when the ADA told American dentists that mercury fillings were safe? Like sheep, they continued the directive on blind faith and the long-term results were not good. No doubt, AMA doctors are waiting to be told marijuana is an effective medicine so in the meantime they keep prescribing opioids, and hence, addiction.

  • Adam Hefner

    Cbd is a strong inhibitor to the cyp450 enzyme family which can interact with 70% of pharma drugs especially in emergency situations

    • Mcozy333

      Also PPAR and TRPv1 Hormone receptors located on the ER

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  • Mcozy333

    All doctors need know is that the cannabinoids from the cannabis plant down regulate the biological functioning of the endocannabinoid system. Phytocannabinoids act on the G protein-coupled receptors ( 7 trans membrane receptors) to modulate intracellular enzymes and hormones. up to 50% of Doctor prescribed medications are targeting the G-proteins just as cannabis does too… that is the direct competition involving molecules targeting your physiological systems… if doctors could they would offer cannabis therapy, smart doctors who care would……………………..

  • peter sculligo

    Health care industry=Big Pharma pills poison pushers. Cannabis is the best medicine known to humanity! Re-schedule Cannabis

  • peter sculligo

    Cannabis cures erectile dysfunction…it will give you a major hard on