Pot Docs Fomenting Backlash

Has the time come for medical marijuana physicians to clamp down on their own kind?

The bereaved parents of Matthew Hurlbutt, a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student hit and killed by a car in October, are suing everyone — and that includes the physician who gave Hurlbutt a medical marijuana recommendation. “The lawsuit doesn’t mention that in addition to marijuana, Hurlbutt had a high level of alcohol as well as cocaine in his system when he was struck, according to a CHP investigation,” reports The San Luis Obispo Tribune.

Former colleagues of Hurlbutt’s physician, Dr. Atsuko Rees, allege that she held “Marijuana Fridays” at her San Luis Obispo clinic. Rees did not return phone calls seeking comment. But even if she provided a high quality of care to Hurlbutt, the number of shady pot doctors in California has flourished in the last couple of years, said Dr. David Bearman, a Santa Barbara physician and co-director of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine.

After a thirty-year career on the Central Coast, Bearman is now a semi-retired pain management specialist who sees medical cannabis patients. Bearman also has testified in more than four hundred trials as an expert on medical marijuana.

Lax medical standards do a disservice to needy patients, undermine support for medical marijuana, and could cause a backlash, he said. This month, legislators in Montana sharply curtailed patient access amid just such a backlash. Colorado’s attorney general has questioned the legitimacy of that state’s 135,000 patients. “They need to be reigned in,” Bearman said of shady pot docs. “By making a mockery of the medical use of marijuana it makes it more difficult for the tens of thousands of people who benefit from it.”

When California voters approved of Prop 215 in 1996, doctors’ guidelines were not specified. The public agency responsible for regulating doctors is the California Medical Board. But Bearman said the medical board’s initial reaction to the onset of medical marijuana in California was one of intimidation. The board launched investigations of the first doctors to recommend the drug and it had a chilling effect.

“When it comes to medical marijuana, they have made a mess of it; they have discouraged your average doctor from making medical marijuana recommendations,” he said. “The medical board does a halfway decent job if they’re looking for somebody who is incapacitated — if a doctor is drunk or had a stroke. When it comes to quality of care, they fall down.”

Today, few mainstream docs will risk the scrutiny of the medical board, leaving the field of medical marijuana to those willing to risk their license, Bearman said.

The medical board did not respond to phone calls for this story, but in 2010, Candis Cohen, then spokeswoman for the board, said it usually only investigates doctors in response to complaints, and generally very few patients complain about getting a cannabis recommendation. There may be 250,000 medical cannabis patients in California, industry experts estimate. Patients are not required to register with the state.

Bearman is suggesting a new law that would limit physicians who can recommend cannabis to a patient’s primary care provider, or a specialist or a doctor certified by American Academy of Cannabinoid Physicians. The two-year-old group has about fifty members and is currently raising funds to grow its ranks, educate doctors, and lobby public officials.

If pot docs don’t want to join the academy, there is still precedent for establishing specializations and accreditations in medicine, and it should be followed, Bearman said. For example, California doctors must take an eight-hour class to prescribe Suboxone for opiate dependence, or twelve hours training for pain management and end-of-life care. Similar classes are being mandated for Washington DC’s medical marijuana program.

“There’s a lot of good science and good studies out there,” Bearman said, but mainstream doctors don’t know anything about cannabis, even though the endocannabinoid system is the largest signaling system in the brain.

Bearman said California will see more stories of wrongful death suits like the Hurlbutt case, and that the time has come for the nascent industry to self-regulate or face new reprisals.

Seeds and Stems

Leading anti-marijuana Republican lawmaker from Rhode Island, Robert Watson, told the Boston Herald that police targeted him because he is a politician during an April DUI bust that included pot possession charges. But according to the Herald, “a police report on Friday’s traffic stop said Watson smelled of alcohol and marijuana and performed poorly on sobriety tests. An officer found a bag of suspected marijuana and a wooden pipe in Watson’s pocket.”

Of course, just this February the prohibitionist pol dissed Rhode Island’s legislature for its liberalness. Watson told a Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce group that the legislature’s priorities are correct if “you’re a Guatemalan gay man who likes to gamble and smokes marijuana.” Despite the obvious embarrassment, the Rhode Island GOP caucus said they still support Watson.

High Times‘ Medical Marijuana Cup returns for year two to San Francisco, the magazine announced last week. And same as last year, guests will not get pot with admission to the High Times 2011 Medical Cannabis Cup, held June 25 and 26. High Times medical marijuana magazine West Coast editor David Bienestock said the event has been upgraded to the San Francisco Concourse and ticketing should be easier this year. VIP tickets are $100 (!), two-day general admission is $50.


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