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The Pharmacist Role in Cannabis

You might not expect a cannabis dispensary to have an in-house pharmacist, but in states like Pennsylvania, it’s a legal requirement. Pharmacists serve as a helpful resource for patients and dispensary employees alike. And their help is so invaluable, that Ethos Cannabis plans to add pharmacists to its Ohio and Massachusetts locations in 2022.

To better understand a day in the life of a PharmD at Ethos and how they bring value to patients, we spoke with William McLay, PharmD, Ethos’ head medical professional.

What does a cannabis pharmacist do?

The pharmacists at Ethos, referred to as PharmDs, are qualified medical professionals with expertise in pharmacology and cannabis. They serve an important role, not only by ensuring compliance with state regulations by checking patient medical certifications, but also by acting as a bridge between the complexities of cannabis science and what a patient needs to know to find relief. 

For McLay, cannabis medicine isn’t just a passion project – it’s personal. McLay became a pharmacist with a focus on cannabis after seeing firsthand the impact it could have on the lives of his loved ones.

“My father is the poster child for pain,” McLay said. “He broke his back and neck 30 years ago and has been on every pain med possible. I watched him transition from opioids and other pain meds to cannabis, and his quality of life improved tenfold.”

That experience led McLay, a former lumberjack who still wears the burly beard of the trade, to pursue a degree in pharmacology. McLay describes working as a cannabis pharmacist as a dream workplace.

“Ethos values medical professionals and empowers us to educate the patients,” McLay said. “Ethos wants us to play a strong leadership role in the dispensary.”

Consulting with patients

One of the most important aspects of a pharmacist’s job is to consult with new and returning patients. McLay said he meets with patients face to face or over the phone, whichever they’re more comfortable with. His patient consultations run the gamut from 101 introductions for new patients to advanced knowledge for those who have consumed cannabis for years.

“That’s what we’re here for, keeping that education level high,” McLay said. “And sometimes we get questions out of left field and don’t always have the answer. We’re just up front about that and explain that the science is new – then we’ll look it up and get back to them.”

Patient consultations remain a central aspect of the pharmacist’s role in the dispensary, given longtime cannabis lore and the lack of reliable studies available to the general public. From major considerations like cannabis and medication interactions to simple questions about a new product type, pharmacists can guide patients to make the best possible choice for their goals.

“One of the main things I see is that people only know about THC – they might not know about other cannabinoids or terpenes,” McLay said. “A lot of times high-THC flower isn’t a route for success, so I like to have conversations about the different compounds in cannabis, like CBD or myrcene.”

The trick is to avoid throwing the kitchen sink at patients all at once, he added. Cannabis is complex and there is more information emerging every day; to keep things accessible, McLay focuses on delivering actionable information that can help patients find relief. 

Educating staff members

A pharmacist’s role in the dispensary not only includes educating patients, but also staff members. McLay said he works regularly with store managers and product associates to ensure they are up to date on all the latest science and how it relates to their patients. To do so, McLay holds frequent educational sessions with his team at Ethos’s Wilkes-Barre (PA) location.

“The team is recommending products to patients every day and we want them to be able to rely on us as pharmacists,” McLay said. “We’ll pick a topic, like CBN for example, and just talk about it and answer questions to make sure we’re all on the same page. We’re working on training by disease state as well; we’re focused on anxiety right now.”

That’s typically how McLay begins his day. Whether sharing information with the staff at Ethos Wilkes-Barre or coordinating with pharmacists at other Ethos locations, he said the value of teamwork and mutual education cannot be understated.

“I come in early and catch up with the team on everything that’s happened,” he said. “Teamwork is really important. We have monthly meetings, a chat group, and a Sharepoint folder with several hundred articles saved that we all share.”

Tracking and sharing new research

Regularly studying new scholarly articles and emerging research is an essential part of a pharmacist’s job. That knowledge is then integrated into everyday practices in the dispensary. 

“It’s so important to stay up on the newest research because this is an emerging market and evolving science,” McLay said. “Unfortunately, up until now, there’s not been a lot of reliable research on cannabis. That’s changing slowly, especially in Israel, Canada, and Australia. This is invaluable information; we need these randomized controlled trials, meta-studies, surveys, and case studies.

“Anything we can get our hands on is important,” he added.

McLay said he spends a significant amount of time perusing updates from cannabis research organizations, as well as scouring PubMed and Google Scholar on his own to stay on top of the latest news about cannabis science.

Checking medical certifications

In states with a medical cannabis program, pharmacists also play a critical role in compliance. McLay checks patient certifications as they walk in the door, ensuring their medical cannabis card is still valid and that all the documentation is in order. Checking certifications is also another opportunity for pharmacists like McLay to interface with patients, learning about the products they’ve recently purchased and how they are affecting them.

“Usually at opening, I’m up front to let the patients in. There’s usually a line of people out the door, so I greet them all, check them in, and double check their certifications,” McLay said. “We’re a fairly high volume store that sees a lot of patients in a day, so I try to speak with everyone I can during check-in.”

Partnering with academic institutions to further cannabis science

After a busy day monitoring new research, consulting with patients, educating staff, and checking certifications, it would be easy to think a pharmacist’s responsibilities are done. But Ethos pharmacists don’t stop at explaining the existing science behind cannabis – they drive it forward, too.

In partnership with Thomas Jefferson University, Ethos is engaged in research that will be key in learning more about cannabis and its potential therapeutic effects. The results of this research will be used to directly inform dispensary pharmacists and staff to further improve the quality of service and results patients can expect.

“It’s one of the main reasons I was drawn to Ethos,” McLay said of the partnership with Thomas Jefferson University. “Furthering cannabis study is one of their main goals; not many dispensaries are doing that. Ethos is in it for the patients and trying to be at the forefront of the cannabis realization the U.S. is having right now.”

McLay mentioned that the research underway between Ethos and Thomas Jefferson University includes real patients from the dispensary that have volunteered to participate in surveys and follow-ups related to their treatment. The real-world data will be helpful in advancing knowledge about cannabis compounds, various product types, and how patients respond. 

“It’s awesome and the patient feedback is so positive,” McLay said. “They want to be involved and let people know this is working for them, that there’s this option with a high rate of success.”

Celebrate National Pharmacist Day with Ethos

For the pharmacists that do so much for all our patients and customers, we are grateful. This year, on National Pharmacist Day, celebrate with Ethos by thanking those pillars of the cannabis community who ensure reliable, practical information about cannabis gets in the hands of those who need it most – the patients. 

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