House panel OKs stronger penalty for docs not following rules on medical marijuana

Sonny Borrelli

Courtesy

Sonny Borrelli

PHOENIX – State lawmakers are moving to make felons of doctors who don’t follow all the rules when recommending that a patient be allowed to use marijuana.

The 6-3 vote Thursday by the House Health Committee for HB 2067 would impose prison terms of up to a year for medical professionals who fail to conduct a full medical exam before issuing the required state certification to buy and use the drug. That same penalty also would apply to doctors who do not review at least a year of the patient’s medical records.

That vote came on the heels of complaints by Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk about “pot docs,’’ people she said who are in the business of making as much money as they can providing the required certification patients need to be able to legally purchase and use the drug.

Polk has made no secret of the fact that she opposes medical marijuana. But with voters having approved the program in 2010, she is powerless to do anything about that.

What Polk said she can do, however, is ensure as much as possible that doctors follow the certification process already required by state regulations. That, she told lawmakers, is not happening.

As proof she cited billboards which say that people can get a medical marijuana card without having any medical records.

Thursday’s vote is the second victory for Polk in her fight against medical marijuana.

Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, said lobbying by Polk has forced him to abandon his effort to slash the $150 annual fee the state Department of Health Services charges to patients.

Borrelli had shepherded his SB 1420 through the Senate Government Committee late last month after pointing out that the amount of money being collected is far greater than the cost of running the program. He pointed out that there is more than $40 million sitting in an account that, by law, cannot be used for other purposes.

But that was before Polk argued to lawmakers that lower fees would make it easier for young people to get medical marijuana cards.

Borrelli told Capitol Media Services that Polk’s opposition threatened to quash the entire bill. By dumping the fee reduction, Borrelli preserves the other key provision he thinks is crucial: having the state test what’s being sold as medical marijuana, both to verify the content of THC, the psychoactive element, as well as to determine whether there are residual pesticides or chemicals.

The 2010 voter-approved law allows those with certain medical conditions and a doctor’s recommendation – it’s technically not a prescription – to get a card from the state allowing them to purchase up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks. The most recent reports show more than 156,000 Arizonans have been issued these cards.

What’s behind Polk’s efforts on both bills is her belief that it’s just too easy for people – especially newly minted adults – to get the cards.

“I hear a lot from the parents who are very frustrated because their son has turned 18,’’ she told lawmakers. “They visited what we call the ‘pot docs’ and 30 minutes later they walk out with that recommendation.’’

But it isn’t just teens.

“This is a de facto recreational marijuana program,’’ Polk says of the 2010 law.

She cited figures from the state which show fewer than 3 percent of medical marijuana patients got the certification for cancer and fewer than 2 percent for post-traumatic stress disorder. Conversely, Polk said, about 85 percent of certifications fall into a catch-all category of chronic pain, with the bulk of patients being males between 18 and 30.

That suggestion that many patients really have no legitimate need drew a sharp reaction from Rep. Pamela Powers Hanley, D-Tucson. She cited information which shows that the largest users of opioids for pain among men was that same age group.

“So I don’t think you should discount the idea that because a man is young that he does not have chronic pain,’’ she said.

Powers Hanley said there are studies that show marijuana is a viable alternative to opioids as well as being a less expensive alternative to other pain medications.

“I see this bill as an attempt to overregulate a medicinal plant that has been used for centuries safely,’’ she said.

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, said she’s not a fan of recreational use of marijuana.

“But I do think there is a serious medical need for it,’’ she said, saying she does not want to “criminalize physicians who are doing their job.’’

Polk acknowledged that existing law already allows the medical boards that license and regulate doctors to discipline those who do not follow state laws and rules and even revoke their ability to practice. But she did not see that as a substitute for criminal penalties.

HB 2067 now needs approval of the full House.