Pharmacist Joseph Friedman has a dream to open his own medical marijuana dispensary in Illinois. Who better to oversee the recently legalized sale of medicinal pot, he asks, than pharmacists, who understand dosing, side effects and drug interactions? “It makes perfect sense,” he said. “After all, pharmacists are the drug experts.”
One problem: Pharmacists’ federal licenses prohibit them from dispensing the drug. That’s why Friedman, of Lincolnshire, is leading a push in Illinois to have pharmacists run marijuana dispensaries and to reclassify the drug as a “Schedule II” substance for medical use. After Friedman’s presentation Tuesday before the Illinois State Board of Pharmacy, other leading pharmacists expressed interest in the board getting involved as the rules for medical marijuana distribution are sorted out.
A new Illinois law took effect Jan. 1 allowing for the sale of medical marijuana for a list of about 35 chronic medical conditions. State regulators are drawing up rules to oversee the sale of the herb as part of a four-year pilot program. The proposed rules are due to be ready for public input by the end of April, but marijuana advocates say they will take much more time to finalize and implement and don’t expect patients to start getting pot until next year. The law charges various state agencies with regulating the process and would allow anyone who is over 21 and doesn’t have a felony conviction to apply for a license to dispense medicinal marijuana. The law allows up to 60 dispensaries to sell the drug but does not specify any role for pharmacists or the Board of Pharmacy.
“We have nothing whatsoever to do with it,” board Chairman Philip Burgess said at the outset of the board meeting. “We’re not interested, frankly, because we’re not involved.” But after representatives from pharmacist groups made their case, several board members voiced interest in involvement in the rule-making process. “I think it’s a tremendous missed opportunity for pharmacists not to be sitting in the first row on this,” board member Ronald Weinert said.
The board, which took no formal action, is an advisory body to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which is helping draft the rules for medical marijuana. The agency welcomes the board’s input after the proposed rules are made available for public comment, spokeswoman Sue Hofer said. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana, while Colorado and Washington allow it for recreational use. At least one state, Connecticut, has authorized only pharmacists to dispense the drug.
The Illinois Pharmacists Association opposed the current law in principle but would support having its members oversee the sale of marijuana if it went through the typical federal approval process for medicinal drugs and was reclassified for legal sale, Executive Director Garth Reynolds said. He also hopes pharmaceutical companies will develop more standardized and quantifiable grades of marijuana. Not everyone is a fan of pharmacists dispensing marijuana. Dan Linn, executive director of NORML Illinois, which works to legalize the drug, said some marijuana advocates fear that the big pharmaceutical industry will take over the potentially multibillion-dollar business, forcing out local growers and retailers.
The lead sponsor of the Illinois medical pot law, state Rep. Lou Lang, said he has no position on the issue but noted that people who’ve been working in the industry for years may know more than pharmacists about how marijuana can help people with cancer or AIDS. “While pharmacists certainly are used to dispensing medication, they don’t have any particular expertise in this area,” said Lang, a Democrat from Skokie. “Perhaps people who’ve been in the business in other states have far greater expertise.” In any case, he said, regulations for awarding dispensary licenses should be based on specific, objective criteria to avoid controversy over who gets the licenses.
James O’Donnell, an assistant professor of pharmacology at Rush Medical College and a health care consultant, argued that pharmacists are the best professionals for the job. “We can do it better,” he said. “We’re used to dispensing controlled substances to protect the public.” State officials would not comment on whether their regulations would involve pharmacists, but Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold wrote in an email: “The state is reviewing the best options to ensure patient safety, including how health care professionals will be involved in certifying a patient’s eligibility and medical cannabis-related education.”
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