Cannabis Nursing: What to Know About This Emerging Nursing Role

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Thanks to a developing body of knowledge on medical marijuana, an evolving public opinion, widespread recognition of its benefits throughout the medical community, and an increasing number of states passing laws supporting the legal use of cannabis for medical reasons, the need for a nursing workforce well versed in the many ways marijuana can be used medicinally is more important than ever.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to approve or recognize the marijuana plant itself as medicine, scientific study has led to two FDA-approved medications available in pill form that are derived from the cannabis plant. At the same time, 33 states now have some type of medical cannabis law in place, and the number continues to grow. Further, a 2015 poll conducted by SERMO, a social network exclusively for doctors, found that 68 percent of U.S. physicians now support legalized cannabis.

Increasingly, physician groups, hospitals, and managed care organizations, among many others, require nurses with a deep understanding of the medicinal applications of cannabis – so much so that the term, cannabis nursing, has become a recognized discipline. The professional nursing organization, the American Cannabis Nursing Association (ACNA), was created to address the need for nursing professionals well versed in the medicinal use of cannabis.

Examining the Medicinal Benefits of Marijuana’s Cannabinoid Chemicals

Medical marijuana refers to the use of all or some of the marijuana plant (or its extracts) to treat a symptom or disease. Medical marijuana is frequently referred to as cannabis, due to the cannabinoid chemicals that exist in it. Although the most familiar cannabinoid in marijuana is the mind-altering delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the marijuana plant actually contains more than 100 cannabinoids.

THC increases appetite and reduces nausea, making it a standard treatment for cancer patients and those with chronic pain. It has also been shown to decrease inflammation and treat muscle control issues. Currently, two FDA-approved drugs contain THC: dronabinol and nabilone, both of which are used to treat nausea among patients undergoing chemotherapy and appetite loss due to AIDS-related weight loss.

There is growing interest throughout the medical community in the marijuana chemical cannabidiol (CBD) for treating a wide array of medical conditions. For example, CBD has been shown to dramatically reduce the number and severity of seizures associated with childhood epilepsy. CBD in an oil form is being widely used to treat a variety of neurological disorders, as well as pain, inflammation, and some mental disorders. Unlike THC, CBD does not affect the mind or behavior of those that ingest it.

Cannabis Nursing: Tapping into a Developing Body of Knowledge

As the use of cannabis for medical purposes increases, the U.S. will need a population of nurses familiar not only with the different constituents of medicinal marijuana and their applications, but also the ethical and legal implications that arise when nursing care intersects with the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

According to the ACNA, cannabis nursing is defined as nursing care that incorporates knowledge of:

  • The endocannabinoid system (cannabinoids from exterior sources)
  • The safe use of herbal cannabis products
  • The awareness of the legal complexities associated with the use of herbal cannabis products

Cannabis nurses possess the expertise to complete the following tasks associated with cannabis treatment:

  • Guide the use of cannabis in a way that minimizes unwanted side effects
  • Identify drug interactions
  • Recognize clean, safe medicine
  • Assist in titrating or tapering doses
  • Test strains
  • Educate others about strain differences

Cannabis nurses understand that cannabis is a treatment that involves a continuum of care. Therefore, they remain cognizant of the possibility of interacting drugs and treatments, the law, and the physiology of wellness and illness.

How to Become a Cannabis Nurse

According to the ACNA, any licensed or registered nurse can become a cannabis nurse. The ACNA developed two courses to educate nurses on the basics of cannabis and its use in modern medicine. The courses offered by ACNA include:

  • Core Curriculum – An eight-hour seminar that provides an extensive overview of cannabis nursing; worth 6 continuing education units (CEUs)
  • Advanced Curriculum – A class that provides additional training in medical cannabis; worth 4 continuing education units (CEUs)

Both courses are offered as pre-conference workshops in conjunction with a number of educational conferences throughout the year. The ACNA will soon offer these courses in an online format.

Graduates of the ACNA’s cannabis courses are deemed competent in cannabis nursing. The ACNA is currently working hard to petition the American Nurses Credentialing Center to recognize cannabis nursing as a sub-specialty of nursing and grant cannabis nurses national certification.