A state database under development will help regulators figure out whether money-minded doctors and recreational pot users exploit Arizona's new medical-marijuana program.
State residents can begin obtaining recommendations and applying for medical pot cards starting on April 14 under the voter-approved Arizona Medical Marijuana Act. Thousands of people are expected to take advantage of the new law, but officials creating the rules say they'll scrutinize details of each recommendation that will be stored on a state database.
As we detailed earlier today, the second draft of rules released this morning makes it easier to obtain a recommendation than it would have been under the first draft rules. Yet Department of Health Services officials at a news conference in downtown Phoenix today say the system will be robust enough to prevent "problems" seen in other states.
One of the problems perceived by some officials is that too many people who don't seem debilitated have taken advantage of programs in California and Colorado. Those questionable participants were aided by just a few doctors who wrote thousands of recommendations.
The latest rules for the Arizona system would require a doctor to give a prospective marijuana patient a physical exam and to review the patient's medical records before recommending pot. Computers will track details of the visit which could be reviewed later by state regulators.
Docs who write high numbers of recommendations will be singled out for review, and if any of the recommendations "look at all suspicious, those (doctors) can count on getting a friendly call from me or someone else at the agency," said Dr. Laura Nelson, DHS chief medical officer.
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It's not cancer or AIDS patients of any age that officials are worried about. Officials mainly worry that Prop 203 allows people with the vague complaint of "chronic and severe pain" to obtain legal pot.
Nelson and DHS Director Will Humble admitted that, under the latest suggested rules, it would be possible for some doctors to write dozens of passable recommendations daily.
Demographics and health records would be key to determining potential abuse, they say: The overall number of recommendations won't matter so much, as long as the patients are, say, over 40 and seem to have legitimate gripes about pain or other qualifying ailments.
If officials determine that a physician is over-writing recommendations, they'll complain to the appropriate governing board. Each of the four kinds of doctors who can write recommendations -- medical doctors, osteopaths, homeopaths and naturopaths -- have boards to which they must answer. If the board determines that a physician under their oversight is doing something wrong, disciplinary action could be taken.
Facilities that seem to be in business solely to hook potential patients up with doctors who'll write them recommendations don't present a problem in and of themselves, "as long as they are doing what any reasonable doctor would," said Elaine LeTart, executive director of the Arizona Board of Osteopathic Examiners.
We asked Will Humble how many recommendations a busy doctor could conceivable write in an hour and still be considered potentially legit. He guesstimated about 20 minutes per patient, or three an hour. No doubt, some highly productive doctors could get that time down to 10 or 15 minutes.
With a charge of $150 or so for the exam, the attraction for some doctors certainly becomes clear.
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