Budtenders in Oklahoma offer guidance, but lack medical training
Bridget Sharp found satisfying work dispensing drugs, but she’s no pharmacist.
Sharp is a budtender at Blue Collar Criminals, a medical marijuana business that grows, processes and dispenses marijuana bud and other cannabis-related products. As a budtender, she acts as a guide when medical marijuana license-holders visit the business in need of something to soothe an aching pain, provide relief for epileptic seizures or other medical conditions that could benefit from the use of medical marijuana.
But Sharp has no formal medical training — few budtenders do.
Instead, she relies on personal experience and customer feedback to provide recommendations for marijuana.
“I only have my own medical history,” Sharp said. “I can point to ones that work for me.”
Sharp’s story is not unique among budtenders in the industry. Despite being legalized for medical purposes, the business model for many dispensaries more closely resembles retail than a prescription-filling pharmacy, and its point-of-sale employees are often personal enthusiasts of the drug and not formally trained medical professionals.
Comparing pharmacies to dispensaries is not as simple as it appears.
Both are businesses.
Pharmacies make profits from professional dispensing fees for filling prescriptions. This is not dependent on how much product is in a prescription or how valuable the medicine is. Higher profits for a pharmacy come from a greater number of prescriptions filled.
A dispensary follows a standard retail model. Marijuana and marijuana products sold at a dispensary contain markups on price, and the dispensary gains profits by increasing its margins or selling larger volumes of products.
Both restrict who can purchase products.
A dispensary only sells to medical marijuana license-holders who are registered with the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. A pharmacy sells specific quantities of specific medicines as prescribed.
But because marijuana is not a prescription, it is only recommended by a physician, consumers are free to choose which products, and how much, they purchase at dispensaries. The retail business model at dispensaries actually encourages more purchases to increase profits, whereas a fee-based system in pharmacies is dependent on prescriptions to be filed.
Nothing prevents a medical marijuana license-holder from buying any number of products at any number of dispensaries. Many dispensaries restrict the amount sold in one transaction, but that patient could simply head to the next store to purchase more.
The amount of medical marijuana purchased and consumed is a matter of patient choice, and the amount of cash he or she has on hand.
Medical advice, or lack thereof
Theoretically, Oklahomans with medical marijuana licenses are being introduced to a new medicine. Use of the substance in Oklahoma had not been legal before the passage of State Question 788 in 2018.
Many licensees are therefore new to marijuana and its effects. Budtenders guide consumers and answer questions about products. Without formal medical training, they often recommend trying a variety of products and self-diagnosing the benefits. If it doesn’t work, come back and try something else.
“Nobody is expecting a doctor,” Okie Kush Club co-owner Keith Laird said. “They are expecting someone to guide you since so many are brand new.
“If you have a lot of experience growing yourself, that’s great,” Laird said. “But I really want people who have seen positive effects with their lives.”
Pharmacists rely heavily on medical training. Most spend four years in pharmacy school in addition to at least two years of undergraduate college-level courses in order to gain expertise in the products they are dispensing.
“We have an obligation to the public to educate the best pharmacists and put the best pharmacists out to the people,” Southwest Oklahoma State University Dean of the college of pharmacy David Ralph said.
Pharmacists sometimes communicate directly with prescribing doctors about what is being given a patient.
“Communication is a huge part of the profession,” Ralph said. “They can work with doctors and say, here’s what’s going to happen if they take this drug. Here are the outcomes you can expect.”
The same level of expertise provided by classically trained pharmacists is not present when obtaining medical marijuana, according to Ralph.
“It’s just experimenting,” Ralph said. “A patient doesn’t know for sure how it might work.
The benefits have been undeniable for some patients with certain symptoms, Ralph said. But that doesn’t mean there is extensive scientific evidence to fully understand the effects of medical marijuana.
“I’m not opposed to the utilization of it at all, and I think people will really benefit,” Ralph said. “It seems like there should be some better oversight from the people who are working with it.”
Sharp isn’t too worried about adverse effects.
“It’s natural,” Sharp said. “It comes from a seed that you grow and water.”
Use of medical marijuana instead of prescription drugs is, after all, a personal decision.
“That’s their choice,” Sharp said. “If they want to go more natural, I’m all aboard with that.”