Consider the last time you had an appointment with a doctor. You likely went because you were sick, and chances are you walked out, headed to a pharmacy with a prescription and picked up medicine that made you feel better. At other times, however, you can skip the doctor and go directly to your local Walgreens to find an over-the-counter medication.
But those seeking medical marijuana must follow a different protocol. In order to purchase medical marijuana in the state of Mississippi, a patient first has to receive a certification of a qualifying condition from a certifying Mississippi practitioner, which includes physicians, nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.
This certification allows the patient to legally walk into a dispensary in the state and buy medical marijuana, but it does not specify which type of the drug the patient needs. For that, patients may have to rely on dispensary technicians, or what some call a “budtender.”
Cameron Chapman, the area development manager of Star Buds Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Oxford, explains the role of dispensary technicians.
“We help (patients) make informed decisions and help them determine what may work best for them,” said Chapman.
“We inform (patients) of what their weekly allotments are, what that entails, what products are available to them and whether or not they have any limitations,” Chapman said. “Doctors have the ability to say that certain types of products would not be the right fit for them, so we have to steer them in the right direction based on those doctor’s recommendations.”
Chapman clarified that budtenders do not make medical diagnoses or promises about marijuana’s healing effects.
“We’re not here to diagnose anybody, and we’re not here to speak with conviction about what this product can do or will do for them,” Chapman said. “It’s more about what the product potentially can do.”
The Dispensary Dilemma
While dispensary staff may be able to offer patients general advice regarding what products might be the best fit, this is not the case at every dispensary.
Monica Bass, a medical marijuana patient who lives with sickle cell disease, described her first dispensary visit.
“I was expecting dispensary techs to be savvy enough to listen to what a condition is and then be able to recommend, but I did not find that to be the case,” Bass said. “The dispensary techs were just reading off of a sheet of paper, telling me what the potency was.”
After that experience, Bass decided to educate herself for future dispensary visits. She took part in a FOCUS (Foundation of Cannabis United States) certification. FOCUS is an organization that offers training in industry standards for medical marijuana business employees, as well as anyone interested in learning the ins and outs of the industry.
“I had gone the extra mile and got FOCUS certified so I would know everything about medical marijuana. That’s when I became aware of the strains and what works for me,” she said.
After her training, Bass visited a different dispensary. Her self-education improved her experience.
“They were more knowledgeable, and they had more products, but (the dispensary technician) still had information on the sheet of paper. And I was like, ‘Well, can I see the paper? I know exactly what it is that I’m looking for,” she said.
Inconsistency in the quality of dispensary visits has much to do with each staff’s individual knowledge and dispensary-specific training. Even though dispensary employees undergo eight hours of training conducted by the Mississippi Department of Revenue and Marijuana Enforcement Tracking, Reporting and Compliance, a company offering instruction related to medical marijuana, the training is mostly focused on rules regarding sales, proper handling and storage of cannabis, and restrictions that prevent them from providing medical advice.
Trial and Error
In fact, since marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, no medical professional is able to prescribe medical marijuana. In addition, no pharmacist is involved in the process.
According to Dr. William Evans, a neurologist in Ocean Springs, Miss., that means patients may have less information than they need to use the drug safely.
“There could be adverse potential depending on a patient’s medical condition or current medications,” Evans, who does not plan to certify patients, said. “For many conditions, there is not good data to support use, and there are many potential adverse side effects that can occur in neurologic patients.”
Evans also doubts that the benefits of using medical marijuana outweigh the drawbacks.
“There is widespread belief that marijuana ‘cures’ many conditions. In my opinion, it may offer some relief for some symptoms associated with a variety of neurological conditions such as nausea, anxiety, pain, tremor, but the potential cost occurs with side effects such as slowed processing and memory problems,” Evans said. “Something that claims to cure everything unlikely cures anything.”
While the long-term efficacy of Mississippi’s current model of dispensing medical marijuana has yet to be determined, there are potential risks to not having medical professionals involved in every step of the process. Outside of restrictions regarding the quantity or delivery method, there are few guidelines for patients looking for the most effective type of medical marijuana.
Stephanie Gray is both a medical marijuana patient and owner of a dispensary, GreenWise Cannabis Company. To educate her staff on the products they sell, Gray brought in a medical marijuana consultant from Colorado.
Even with such training, Gray says that trial and error is part of the dispensing process and that employees’ experiences with a given product play a huge role in helping clients choose the right product.
“We’re not doctors, so we just have to say that, in our experience, this is what this product has done for me,” Gray said. “We rely on that feedback in the dispensaries. I just tried one of the gummies, which is relaxing, and I liked it. Then, I had another gummy that I tried that didn’t really do much for me.”
Both Gray and Bass said they didn’t get any information from their physicians about the best products to use.
“They were mainly checking off the boxes at the office that I went to. They wanted to make sure that I qualified, they wanted to make sure that I had a condition that met the guidelines and met the laws. The dispensary side is where I got all of my information,” Gray said.
“They’re just trying to go ahead, get you certified and tell you what the next step is, and if you know anybody to refer,” Bass said. There’s no information that they have on what’s up with the dispensaries or what’s going to be best for me.”
For now, medical marijuana patients must educate themselves or rely on what could be less than reliable information.
“It’s just word of mouth. When I went in the other day to buy (marijuana), I was like, ‘Okay, what’s the word on the street? What’s everybody liking? What’s being purchased the most?’ That’s kind of how we’re learning,” Gray said.
Who is educating patients on the use of medical marijuana?
- First, a certifying practitioner has to say that a patient has a qualifying condition and may benefit from the use of medical marijuana.
- Second, dispensary staff can help patients narrow down which product may be worth trying.
- And finally, patients themselves can find what works for them and what doesn’t.
Story by Michael Pitts. Reporter Loral Winn contributed to this story.