You Can Buy THC at Your Local Pharmacy…

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Blog post written by The Giving Tree’s Medical Director, Dr. Gina Berman.


That’s right I said it. Pharmacy. You know? CVS, Walgreens, your local grocery store? That Pharmacy.

“But I thought cannabis was sold at a place called a dispensary?”

True. Cannabis is a plant and you can buy its flowers or resin at dispensary. But if you want pure THC…you go to your local pharmacy. It goes by a couple of names, mainly Marinol or Dronabinol.

How is that possible? I thought THC was federally illegal?

Yes and no.

It’s complicated.

Here’s a little history to explain the why’s and how’s this all happened:

Pre-1937, cannabis was used by physicians to treat a variety of ailments. Legislators at the time appeared to have gotten cannabis confused with a street drug they called “marijuana” (the street drug they were concerned about was probably not cannabis at all but rather something more along the lines of PCP, from the reports I’ve read). Against the objections of the American Medical Association, these federal legislators essentially criminalized the use of marijuana/cannabis via the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

The Marihuana Tax Act kept cannabis/marijuana illegal until 1969 when The Act was deemed by the courts to be unconstitutional. Instead of marijuana/cannabis falling into legal territory with the Marihuana Tax Act gone, it was added to the Controlled Substances list in 1970, where it has remained to this day. THC is specifically called out in the Controlled Substances List under the Tetrahydrocannabinols. So is CBD.

Despite cannabis and it’s crazy psychoactive compound THC being on “the naughty list”, a pharmaceutical company in the mid-1980s was able to convince the DEA to allow it to sell basically pure THC (mixed with sesame oil and placed in a gelatin capsule). They called it Marinol or Dronabinol. In order to be released into the market, Dronabinol had to be (and was) rescheduled by the DEA from Schedule I to the less naughty list: Schedule II.

Dronabinol had been sold for about a decade when an article was written in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs (1998) which reported that after 10 years of use in the market there was no evidence that Dronabinol was being abused. Specifically, they said “it has a low potential for abuse”. As a result of this “success” and seeing that Dronabinol (really, pure THC) doesn’t create addicts or deadbeats, it was further rescheduled by the DEA in 1999 from Schedule II to Schedule III. Remember, at the same time cannabis and plant-derived THC were still on a list saying they were a high potential for abuse (Schedule I).

It’s surprising to lots of folks that you can buy pure THC at any pharmacy with a prescription from your doctor. Most people have no idea what Marinol or Dronabinol ever are and have never heard of them! Given that cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug worldwide, if THC was so great don’t you think most people would have heard of this magical pure THC drug you can buy legally? Isn’t this the drug everyone really wants? THC? Apparently not.

Turns out THC by itself isn’t really naughty at all.

The reason there aren’t lines out the doors of doctor’s offices of people wanting Dronabinol is that it doesn’t work. Patients don’t get relief from their nausea, vomiting or pain it the way they do from the cannabis plant. Also, the lesson Dronabinol has taught us is that patients don’t become addicted to it. Given these findings after about 30 years of Dronabinol, use it’s a real head-scratcher as to why plant-based THC remains on the Controlled Substances List but the same chemical made in the lab is Schedule III. Riddle me this, eh?

So then…why do so many patients want to use cannabis and not Dronabinol? Professor Raphiel Mechoulam, a cannabis researcher in Israel since the 1960s calls it “The Entourage Effect”. This is the combination of cannabinoids, terpenes and other compounds in the plant that make cannabis effective for patients. It is the difference in this combination (the potency of and different cannabinoids found as well as the terpene profile) that makes the different strains so different also. It’s the different combinations of these compounds that make one strain mind-focusing and energizing and another that glues you to your sofa and puts you to sleep.

So, turns out THC isn’t such a bad player after all…just a little misunderstood.


Blog post written by The Giving Tree’s Medical Director, Dr. Gina Berman.

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