As Massachusetts moves toward implementing its medical marijuana law, federal drug agents are cracking down on doctors for advising medical marijuana dispensaries. At least seven doctors in the state are reporting that Drug Enforcement Administration investigators have contacted them and told them they would lose their DEA license if they did not end their involvement with marijuana dispensaries.
Doctors are required to register with the DEA to prescribe and distribute controlled substances, so losing that license would hamper them from doing their jobs. The doctors being approached by the DEA are advising dispensaries in various ways as they are approved for provisional licenses to distribute medical marijuana.
Dr. Samuel Mazza told the Boston Globe that he returned from vacation in February to find several urgent voice messages and a business card at his door. When he spoke to the DEA investigator, he was told, “Here are your options. You either give up your [DEA] license or give up your position on the board . . . or you challenge it in court.” Mazza is chief executive of Debilitating Medical Conditions Treatment Centers, which was granted preliminary approval by the state to open a dispensary.
Two other physicians told the Globe they already resigned their positions with dispensaries after receiving threats from the DEA. And lawyer Robert Carp said he is representing four other doctors who are facing similar threats if they don’t resign their positions with dispensaries.
Massachusetts passed a medical marijuana law in November 2012, which authorizes distribution to patients with a medical marijuana card through dispensaries. The law does not require a doctor to be affiliated with the dispensaries. But dispensary operators believe they will be both better informed and more credible with doctors involved.
“The dispensaries need good medical information and how else are they going to get it except through physicians that are able to give that information?” said Dr. Walter Panis, chief medical officer for Alternative Therapies Group. He told the Globe he had not yet been contacted by the DEA.
“It’s a comfort level given to patients that there’s actually a medical doctor aligned with the dispensary.” Carp told ThinkProgress. “That they have people well versed in medicine looking out for their best interest and possibly doing research along those lines.”
Carp said many doctors also have significant financial investments in these dispensaries, or are under contractual obligations.
“The question is, suppose they put up money and they’ve already started to build out, what right does the DEA have to force you to bifurcate from a financial deal?” Carp said.
Thus far, this is the only known instance of ongoing DEA targeting against doctors. In 2002, a federal appeals court struck down DEA attempts to pull the licenses and/or investigate doctors for recommending medical marijuana to their patients as a First Amendment violation. In that case, evidence did not clearly tie doctors’ recommendations to aiding and abetting marijuana sales or cultivation, but did suggest that both the First Amendment and the doctor-patient relationship would be obstacles to targeting doctors.
It is not clear how courts would rule on crackdowns against doctors involved with dispensaries. But recent federal actions suggest the Department of Justice is moving resources away from targeting those complying with state law. In August, the Department issued guidance directing federal prosecutors to avert crackdowns against those complying with state marijuana laws. And late last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment that would block the Justice Department (which includes the DEA) from spending money on marijuana enforcement that conflicts with state medical pot laws.
These moves — along with growing political support for regulated medical pot programs — leave the DEA increasingly out of step with the direction of federal policy, as the agency charged with enforcing federal drug laws continues to refer to medical marijuana with scare quotes around “medical.”
“I cannot think of a worse use of law enforcement resources than to undermine a democratically enacted law by intimidating professionals trying to ensure a program designed to help the sick operates as well as it possibly can,” said Neill Franklin, a retired police major and executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “This is a gross example of the confused, immoral logic of prohibition gone awry, and frankly, it disgusts me.”