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What Is Cannabis Nursing?

Joelle Y. Jean, FNP-C, BSN, RN
Updated November 28, 2023
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    Want to know more about cannabis nursing? Find out what a cannabis nurse does and answers to your frequently asked questions.
    Credit: SDI Productions / Getty Images

    As nurses, we are always looking for ways to care for our patients holistically. Becoming a cannabis nurse is another pathway to help address your patients’ pain and well-being.

    As defined by the American Cannabis Nurses Association (ACNA), a cannabis nurse “aims to not only support and educate patients but also to work toward supporting wellness and healing through a caring presence, which supports the patient’s needs.”

    In this article we discuss cannabis nursing, the pros and cons of medical cannabis, and the current legal status of cannabis.

    What Is Medical Cannabis?

    Medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, is extracted from various parts of the cannabis sativa plant. The two essential compounds used for medical marijuana are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The main difference between CBD and THC is that THC gives the feeling of being “high,” while CBD does not.

    The difference between medical cannabis and recreational cannabis is based on the CBD to THC ratio. Recreational cannabis contains more THC.

    Most medical cannabis have higher doses of CBD than THC because of its anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety properties. However, some patients benefit from medications that only contain the synthetic version of THC because THC can act as an appetite stimulant. It may also prevent nausea and vomiting from certain cancer treatments.

    The Current Status of Cannabis in the U.S.

    The passing of the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the sale of hemp products including CBD. This played a major role in increasing access and use of medical cannabis. Here is the current status of cannabis in the United States:

    • minus

      Forty-nine states currently have courses dedicated to cannabis education.

    • minus

      As of May 18, 2021, 36 states and four territories allow for the medical use of cannabis products.

    • minus

      At least 3.6 million Americans are state-legal medical marijuana patients.

    • minus

      The recreational use of marijuana is legal in 19 states, Washington D.C. and Guam. In some states, the amount in a person’s possession affects legal status.

    Despite legalization, there were more marijuana arrests in 2018 than 2015. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.

    Nurses are in the best position to broaden their scope of practice and become cannabis nurses. Not only can they educate their patients on the use of medical cannabis and its effects, but they also can be critical for patient advocacy.

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    What Makes Cannabis Nursing Different From a Registered Nurse?

    A cannabis nurse has a comprehensive understanding of cannabis and its effects on the body. A cannabis nurse is proficient in:

    • The endocannabinoid system
    • Cannabis therapeutics
    • Cannabinoids
    • Terpenoids
    • Cannabis laboratory testing requirements
    • Adverse effects
    • Advocacy
    • Ethical considerations
    • Legal implications

    The National Council of State Boards of Nursing Guidelines for Medical Marijuana offers the following six principles of essential knowledge:

    1. 1

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

    2. 2

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

    3. 3

      The nurse shall understand the endocannabinoid system, the receptors, ligands, enzymes, and the interactions among them.

    4. 4

      The nurse shall understand cannabis pharmacology and the research associated with the medical use of cannabis.

    5. 5

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

    6. 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.

    Nurses can prepare to become cannabis nurses by taking continuing education classes for nurses and becoming a member of the ACNA to receive up-to-date information.

    Nursing and Medical Marijuana

    With the rise in the use of medical cannabis, nurses are finding success in the field. Although there is no certification for cannabis nursing, the ACNA has been working to have cannabis nursing recognized as a specialty by the American Nurses Association (ANA) and American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) since 2017.

    Outlined by the ACNA, a cannabis nurse’s scope of practice combines holistic nursing, interdisciplinary teamwork, and evidence-based practice.

    What Does a Cannabis Nurse Do?

    A cannabis nurse cares for patients experiencing pain symptoms and/or other conditions where they are taking medical cannabis as treatment. Their job is to take a full assessment of their patients, collaborate with prescribing providers, and educate and assist patients with cannabis products. Other important facts include:

    • Cannabis nurses should not administer cannabis to a patient unless specifically authorized by law.
    • Medical cannabis can only be prescribed by a doctor or an advanced practice registered nurse.
    • A cannabis nurse may administer only Food and Drug Administration-approved synthetic THC drugs.

    Cannabis nurses work in various settings:

    • Dispensaries
    • Product manufacturing
    • Hospitals or facilities with patients taking medical marijuana

    Do Cannabis Nurses Actually Work With Marijuana?

    Medical cannabis comes in many forms such as:

    • Capsules
    • Tablets
    • Lozenges
    • Nasal sprays
    • Oil for vaporizing
    • Gummies
    • Topical and transdermal patches
    • Flower

    Cannabis nurses provide education about consumption and dosage. They explain and identify potential side effects and drug interactions.

    Pros of Medical Cannabis

    There are many benefits to medical cannabis. When traditional medication is unsuccessful, medical cannabis can be life changing, especially for specific groups of patients. Medical cannabis has been used to treat:

    • check-circleSeizure disorders, specifically Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet’s Syndrome
    • check-circleChemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
    • check-circleAlzheimer’s disease
    • check-circleAmyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
    • check-circleParkinson’s disease

    Cannabis can also alleviate pain from chronic conditions such as:

    • check-circleCrohn’s disease
    • check-circleGlaucoma
    • check-circleMultiple sclerosis and muscle spasms
    • check-circleSevere and chronic pain
    • check-circleHIV/AIDS
    • check-circleSickle cell disease
    • check-circleTerminal illness
    • check-circlePost-traumatic stress disorder

    The National Institutes of Health also study CBD’s therapeutic effects for opioid dependency and addiction, brain injuries, and weight loss.

    Understanding the Endocannabinoid System

    The use of medical cannabis is said to be therapeutic and enhance the effects of the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system contains receptors found throughout the brain and certain parts of the body. It regulates mood, appetite, pain sensation, memory, and sleep to name a few.

    CBD is thought to work by activating either two specific receptors in our bodies, CB1R and CB2R. By doing this, CBD can regulate:

    • Pain
    • Anxiety
    • Inflammation
    • Insomnia and sleep issues
    • Chronic pain
    • Anxiety and depression

    CBD can have mild side effects, which include:

    • Sleepiness
    • Diarrhea
    • Increase in temperature

    Cons of Medical Cannabis

    There are cons to taking medical cannabis. Some patients should not take it for treatment. Side effects, such as increased heart rate, dizziness, and decreased blood pressure, can have damaging or even fatal effects on certain patients. These include:

    • x-circlePatients with specific heart disease
    • x-circlePregnant patients
    • x-circlePatients with psychotic illness
    • x-circlePatients taking medications that interact with medical cannabis

    As a cannabis nurse, you have the knowledge to support patients using medical cannabis as a treatment. You can empower those who are not by educating them on medical cannabis.

    You also can suggest medical cannabis to patients as an option to traditional medicine. Chances are they already know about it but may be too afraid to ask.

    Cannabis Nursing: Frequently Asked Questions

    What does a dispensary nurse do?

    A dispensary nurse works in facilities that dispense medical cannabis. Their job is to educate and assess patients taking cannabis products.

    How do I become a cannabis nurse?

    To become a cannabis nurse, you must first complete an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, or graduate degree in nursing. You must pass your state’s licensing board exam, also known as the National Council Licensure Examination.

    Is there a certification for CBD?

    As of 2017, there is no certification to become a cannabis nurse. The ACNA has been working to have cannabis nursing recognized as a specialty by the ANA and ANCC.

    How much money do cannabis nurses make?

    According to PayScale, the average base hourly rate of a dispensary nurse is $26.78 per hour as of November 2021.