New Book Examines the Medical Cannabis Experience

How Patients Create Legitimacy and Combat Stigma to Use Cannabis as a Medicine

Two established experts offer new insight on the experiences of medical marijuana patients with compelling interviews and historical context that shows how cannabis fits—and doesn’t—with other medications.


Los Angeles, August 24, 2018—As the medical use of cannabis spreads across the U.S., both the public and policy makers are concerned with how patients integrate it into care and whether it differs from non-medical use. New research just published offers answers to these critical questions. 


The Medicalization of Marijuana offers the first comprehensive look at what it means to participate in a regulated state medical marijuana program, covering how patients obtain information about cannabis, talk to doctors about it, and make decisions about using it, including managing legal risk and social stigma. Anchored by key theories and concepts from sociology, this ground-breaking book puts medical cannabis use into the context of established research on how people use other medicines.


Extensive excerpts from in-depth interviews with 40 mid-life patients enrolled in Colorado’s medical marijuana program gives a dramatic human dimension to core questions about this controversial plant. Supplemented by observation over a two-year period and unstructured interviews with other stakeholders in the medical cannabis industry, the authors’ analysis of patient experiences provides insights into the rapid recent changes in the drug’s place in society, including distinctions between medical and non-medical use.


“Because the medicalization of cannabis is incomplete, the burden of creating legitimacy around using it falls on individuals,” Newhart says. “In every interaction they have to counter decades of stereotype, stigma, and misinformation.”


“The incompleteness of medicalization also means patients are caught between state laws and federal prohibition,” says Dolphin.  “To participate in state programs, patients have to provide personal information that federal prosecutors can use to put them in prison.”




Arguing that marijuana is the most consequential social construction of the 20th century, Newhart and Dolphin trace the history of ideas about it, from the terms used to legislation enacted, before turning to how individuals become medical marijuana patients. Their research shows that people rely on close networks of friends and family for both information about cannabis and making decisions about using it.


From there, they turn to how cannabis treatment is managed in the doctor-patient relationship, mapping the typical responses of physicians to those in other contested areas of medicine. Through interview excerpts and analysis, they show how patients and doctors employ different systems of logic for making decisions about treatments, arguing that specialty doctors often derided as being part of a “doctor mill” for writing numerous medical marijuana recommendations are engaged in a “constructive medicalization” that contributes to the increasing acceptance of cannabis as a medicine.


The changes that come with increasing medicalization are considered in light of the classic theory of “drug, set and setting” that explains the many factors that contribute to how a substance affects people. Among those are changes to how cannabis is produced and consumed, as well as where it fits with the expectations of how individuals behave at different points in their life. The authors argue that this shows how patient behaviors define a substance as a medicine as much as its chemistry.


Yet even with 47 states accepting some form of medical cannabis use as legal, and most patients only turning to cannabis as a medicine of last resort, participating in a state program still carries substantial risk. Patients describe how they deal with legal problems and the stigma and stereotypes that attach to both being ill and using cannabis. Newhart and Dolphin describe how patients come to be part of a loose “thought community” of shared ideas about cannabis, personal freedom, and the role of government regulation.




A husband-and-wife team who have contributed to more than a dozen books about cannabis and drug policy, MICHELLE NEWHART and WILLIAM DOLPHIN have more than 35-years combined experience in the field.


Before completing her PhD in Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Newhart’s work in publishing included seven years as the in-house editor for one of the world’s most prominent cannabis activists and authors, Ed Rosenthal. Since then, she has taught sociology and developed textbooks and digital products for Cengage Learning. She is currently an Instructional Designer at Mt. San Antonio College and is also the coauthor of Understanding Research Methods (10th ed.) from Routledge.


William Dolphin has been a professional writer and editor for three decades, and for more than half of that he has written primarily about medical cannabis law, policy, medical research, and the patient experience. His work for Americans for Safe Access, the leading patient advocacy organization, includes condition-based pamphlets, policy white papers, training materials, and a monthly activist newsletter. He has taught at a number of colleges, including the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches at the University of Redlands.




Here’s an engaging story of a controversial plant and the people who rely on it. If you’ve ever finished a mystery novel and realized you’ve effortlessly learned history, pharmacology, sociology, psychology, and a warm appreciation for real characters, get ready to have a comparable experience. The authors depict the humanity of all their participants while weaving details of the data into a riveting narrative. Readers from diverse backgrounds can learn a lot from this text. Seasoned cannabis researchers are bound to appreciate the nuanced look at the lives of patients. Citizens new to the field will relish many surprises that will likely defy their stereotypes, and fellow patients will find the tales of their brothers and sisters extremely validating. In addition, the book is a superb series of lessons on the utility, challenges, and delights of qualitative research. Anyone interested in finding out more about any underground population and communicating the information in a compelling way now has a stellar example for how to do so.

Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., Author of Understanding Marijuana (Oxford University Press); Professor, University at Albany, SUNY; and NORML Advisory Board Member


Authors Newhart and Dolphin have provided an in-depth sociological study of the patient experience with cannabis in the USA that examines the real-life obstacles, stigma, and legal tightrope that people must negotiate to treat their illnesses in the face of continued federal recalcitrance. Readers will learn details of the history and legal underpinnings related to the cannabis controversy, and hear the stories of 40 patients in their own words, thus putting a human face on this complex topic. It is a highly accurate and welcome addition to the available literature.

Ethan Russo, M.D., Author of Cannabis: From Pariah to Prescription (Routledge) and Director of Research and Development at the International Cannabis and Cannabinoids Institute


With the definitions and uses of marijuana changing rapidly, this is an important and timely book. It brings together policy, experience and especially medicalization in a rich analytical fashion. It should become a benchmark work on impacts of medical marijuana in society.

Peter Conrad, Ph.D., Author of The Medicalization of Society (The Johns Hopkins University Press) and Professor Emeritus, Brandeis University


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To receive an editorial review copy, reporters or interested academic reviewers can email

Book title: The Medicalization of Marijuana: Legitimacy, Stigma, and the Patient Experience

ISBN: 9781138320888 (paperback), 9781138320871 (hardback)

Publication date: August 22, 2018

Authors: Michelle Newhart, PhD & William Dolphin

Publisher: Routledge

Price: $37.95 (paper and ebook), $175 (hardback)

Number of pages: 302

Format: paperback, hardback, and ebook

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