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7 Can’t-Miss Talking Points When Patients Ask You about Trying Cannabis

Currently, 11 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and some 33 have given it the green-light in medical settings. Still, education about the effects of cannabis, the endocannabinoid system and how THC interacts with other drugs is not a standard part of nursing of physician assistant school.

As laws change, you can be sure more patients will ask you about using marijuana — either recreationally or medicinally — and you have a responsibility to provide them with information that will keep them safe, says Theresa Mallick-Searle, MS, RN-BC, ANP-BC, who practices in Stanford Heath Care’s division of pain medicine. Mallick-Searle recently taught a webinar through the American Association of Nurse Practitioners about cannabis.

RELATED: More PAs, APRNs Allowed to Recommend and Sign Medical Marijuana Cards

Below are Mallick-Searle’s top tips for addressing this topic with patients.

Share your own opinions on cannabis use.

If you want your patients to be honest with you, then be honest with them.

“If you feel this way, you can say that you don’t feel cannabis is an appropriate medication, treatment or recreational substance for a patient,” Mallick-Searle says. Just avoid being judgmental.

When discussing medical cannabis, ask your patient to seek a medical marijuana card.

You can have a more comprehensive conversation with your patient if he or she gets a medical marijuana card. That’s why Mallick-Searle recommends all her patients interested in cannabis for medicinal use do so.

“In many states it’s an easy thing to get,” she continues. “Having that card … brings the conversation into a realm where you can talk about medical utility, safety, drug-to-drug interactions, traveling considerations, treatment agreements and goals of care.”

Talk about the risks of cognitive impairment.

It might seem obvious, but clinicians should stress to patients the danger of performing certain activities while under the influence of cannabis. (According to a recent AAA report, 15 million Americans who admit to driving high could use a refresher.)

The duration of the cognitive effects depends on the product’s THC levels and the ingestion method — psycho-activity hits much more slowly after eating it. Usually, effects dissipate within six hours, according to the Ontario Medical Association.

Walk through the difference between orally ingesting and inhaling marijuana.

“Most of your patients will probably be more comfortable using edibles as an introduction to marijuana because they falsely think it’s not as severe as an inhaled product,” Mallick-Searle says.

RELATED: What Clinicians Need to Know About Every FDA-Approved CBD Product

If you’re assessing how a patient responds to cannabis, Mallick-Searle recommends inhalation first. “With an inhaled product, you’ll get rapid blood-level and psycho-activity, so you’ll know how that patient will be affected by the substance,” she says. “With orally ingested products, there’s a degree of variability in terms of when cognitive side effects hit.”

Explain the addictive properties.

Existing research shows cannabinoids appear to trigger the same reward system as alcohol, cocaine and opioids. Stressing this similarity is especially important for individuals with a personal or family history of addiction or a subclinical mental illnesses.

RELATED: USPSTF Wants Clinicians to Screen All Adults for Illicit Drug Use — But What About Teens?

Mallick-Searle adds that “there’s evidence of cannabis dependence” and you should be concerned about it becoming “an addictive substance” for certain patients.

Provide safe purchasing tips.

With most cannabis products, especially CBD, there’s potential for contaminants, Mallick-Searle stresses. So, “it’s important to educate patients about reading labels, knowing where the base product comes from, be it cannabis or hemp, where it’s grown and how it’s manufactured before it actually gets to the dispensary or market,” she explains.

To start, you can recommend Consumer Reports’ resources on CBD and cannabis and tell patients to avoid any inhaled products that contain propylene glycol, which becomes formaldehyde when heated. Another helpful tip? CBD from hemp tends to have more contaminants than CBD from cannabis sativa, and hemp oil has no cannabinoids.

Do not be judgmental. Encourage honesty.

You want your patients to feel comfortable talking to you about marijuana so that, if they choose to use it, you can empower them to do so in the safest way possible. And that won’t happen unless you check your own biases at the door and have an “open conversation,” Mallick-Searle explains. Consider asking them about their interest in trying marijuana and avoid making assumptions about the patient based on age, gender or ethnicity.


Cannabis – What Does it Mean for your Practice?, National Nurse-Led Care Consortium.

Americans Don’t Think They’ll Get Arrested for Driving High, AAA.

Talking to Patients About Recreational Cannabis, Ontario Medical Association.

Last Updated 10/3/2019

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