It’s been months in the making, but doctors throughout New York State are now able to take the training course that must be completed in order for them to recommend medical marijuana to qualifying patients.
The “New York State Practitioner Education — Medical Use of Marijuana Course,” as it’s officially called, will be available online via TheAnswerPage, a medical education website used worldwide. The four-hour course costs $249 and covers topics mandated by the state: pharmacology, side effects, adverse reactions, contraindications, drug interactions, dosing, routes of administration, risks and benefits, warnings and precautions, abuse and dependence, and overdose prevention. Dr. Stephen Corn, founder of TheAnswerPage, describes “overdose prevention” as referring to unwanted side effects, not necessarily how to forestall death-by-o.d. (incidentally, there are exactly zero reported instances of marijuana overdoses resulting in death). At the end of the course, physicians have the option of taking a quiz or completing a crossword puzzle (!) in order to receive state credits for mastering the information.
Advocates are currently reviewing the course in order to determine if it meets the needs of physicians and patients. With the medical marijuana program scheduled to be operational by January, doctors now have less than three months to take the course and recommend cannabis to patients who qualify under the Compassionate Care Act. The law covers ten “severe, debilitating, or life-threatening” conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, and AIDS but leaves out others, for example glaucoma and PTSD, known to be treated with cannabis in other states.
“The launching of the physician training marks an important step forward, but if the state is going to meet their January deadline of providing medical marijuana to qualified patients, they’ll need to do some aggressive outreach to get doctors enrolled, through the course, and registered to certify patients,” says Julie Netherland, New York deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “They also need to quickly launch a system for registering certified patients. New Yorkers cannot afford any delays.”
New York’s Compassionate Care Act, originally drafted in 1997 by Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, took seventeen years to become law. By January, when medical marijuana dispensaries are stocked and operational, patients will have waited eighteen months since Governor Cuomo signed the bill into law in June 2014.
The four-hour course, however, has been criticized for not being comprehensive enough and for failing to cover the many nuances of marijuana medicine. “Three to four hours is a start, a great beginning,” says Corn. “[But] for four hours, it’s a lot of information.”
For example, the course touches on the complexities of cannabis chemistry, including the different uses and potential effects of cannabinoids, or chemical compounds that act on human receptor cells, such as THC (which makes users feel high) and CBD (used for seizures). The cannabis plant contains dozens of cannabinoids, and different cannabis strains with different chemical ratios are each best suited for a variety of ailments. The twenty total dispensaries allowed under the Compassionate Care Act may carry five “brands” of cannabis in the form of tinctures, vaporizable oils, sublingual strips, patches, and capsules; it is still uncertain what these brands will be and at which dispensaries each will be available.
It also remains to be seen how many physicians will sign up to take the course, but Corn says that even those who have no intention of recommending cannabis to their patients should still be educated on it. “Patients will be seeking advice on this medication, just like any other medication,” he says. “You can’t just elect to not learn about a legal medication.”
Cannabis must be treated like other medications, Corn adds, even though medical marijuana is absent from the Physicians’ Desk Reference, an encyclopedia for doctors that contains information on all FDA-approved medications. That’s why it’s even more important that doctors get educated, Corn says. “Physicians don’t have the luxury of just looking it up.”
In the future, he says, TheAnswerPage will continue to develop the course. The website has plans to include additional disease-specific modules and other content that will be made available over time or as more information is gleaned. “This is an ongoing process,” Corn says. “It’s not a static course.”