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Why medical cannabis needs more nurses

Despite their unique skillset, nurses are rarely considered integral to the industry, writes Eloise Theisen.



There are over 28 million nurses worldwide, outnumbering physicians three to one. 

Eloise Theisen is president of the American Cannabis Nurse Association and assistant chair for the Medical Cannabis Certificate Program at Pacific College of Health and Science. She explains why nurses have a vital role to play in medical cannabis care.

Eloise Theisen is the current president of the American Cannabis Nurse Association

Nurses are educators and advocates by nature and training. So, it is no surprise that there is an increased interest in cannabis nursing. 

With over two-thirds of the states allowing for medical cannabis use and now 18 states plus D.C. allowing for adult use, healthcare professionals are finding themselves searching for ways to help patients who want to or are using cannabis. 

Of course, most healthcare professionals did not learn about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in nursing or medical school, and cannabis was mostly taught as a drug of abuse. 

The path to becoming a cannabis nurse is still largely undefined. However, we are seeing programs and opportunities on the rise.

The science of cannabis is complex. Coupled with different qualifying conditions and a variety of products that differ from state to state, it can be overwhelming and confusing for the patient and the healthcare professional. And one cannot discount the vast amount of misinformation on the internet. 

As nurses come to cannabis, they will need to ensure that the educational programs they choose are rooted in evidence-based research and taught by qualified educators. 

While there is no standard curriculum yet, there are many programs out there and many institutions that have programs, ranging from certificate programs to a Master’s degree in cannabinoid sciences. Nurses can choose the level of education based on the direction they would like to take their cannabis nursing career. 

As opportunities for cannabis nurses continue to rise, the role of the cannabis nurse will need to be further defined. There are two organisations currently working on guidelines and scope of practice.

In 2018, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) issued guidelines on how to care for the patient using medical marijuana.

The guidelines identified Six Principles of Essential Knowledge for the pre-licensed, licensed and advanced practice nurse.

1.The nurse shall have a working knowledge of the current state of legalisation of medical and adult-use cannabis.

2.The nurse shall have a working knowledge of the jurisdiction’s medical cannabis program.

3.The nurse shall have an understanding of the ECS, the receptors, ligands, enzymes, and the interactions among them.

4.The nurse shall have an understanding of cannabis pharmacology and the research associated with the medical use of cannabis.

5.The nurse shall be able to identify the safety considerations for patient use of cannabis.

6.The nurse shall approach the patient without judgment regarding the patient’s choice of treatment or preferences in managing pain and other distressing symptoms. 

These guiding principles give nurses a roadmap for their role in the medical cannabis space. 

The American Cannabis Nurses Association (ACNA) was founded in 2010. With over 1,400 members in the US alone, its mission is to advance excellence in cannabis nursing practice through advocacy, collaboration, education, research, and policy development. 

They have been working on a scope and standard of practice for cannabis nurses and released their second iteration in 2019. The scope and standard of practice further defines the role of the cannabis nurse and will lead to credentialing cannabis nurses in the future.

Nurses remain the most trusted profession 19 years in a row. And worldwide, there are over 28 million nurses, which means they outnumber physicians three to one. 

It is no wonder that nurses are ready and able to meet the needs of patients. Nurses have consistently gained the public’s trust and respect. They promote health and wellness, interpret patient information, conduct research, and improve practices and patient outcomes. 

Despite their unique skill set, nurses are rarely employed by cannabis companies or considered integral to the industry. 

Not only do nurses offer credibility, but they can also collect data, identify trends, provide training and education, and coach patients through the medical cannabis process. 

On the other side of the coin, patients rely heavily on cannabis industry professionals to guide them on the best options and demystify the cannabis preparations available. 

For example, dispensary workers are generally on the frontlines when patients seek cannabis-based medicine. The challenge is that dispensary workers are not medical professionals and will likely have a huge knowledge gap around the study of diseases and medications. 

Patients using cannabis deserve to have qualified, knowledgeable healthcare professionals to guide them through the process and nurses are perfectly positioned to fulfil the educational gap. 

Even though the road is still being paved for cannabis nurses, there are many examples of nurses leading the way to bring legitimacy to the profession. 

For example, nurses developed the Medical Cannabis Program at Pacific College Health and Sciences where students can earn eight college credits in as little as six months. There is also a cannabis textbook for nurses as well self-paced and on-line cannabis education for nurses. 

Nurses are continuing to advance their role in the cannabis industry. As the industry matures and evolves, nurses will remain a vital piece to bridging the gap between the industry and the healthcare consumer. 

Nurses will be able to provide on-going education and coaching so that the end user can consume cannabis safely and effectively.

Eloise Theisen, MSN, RN, AGPCNP-BC is assistant chair for the Medical Cannabis Certificate Program at Pacific College of Health and Science.




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