Editorial: Florida needs to get medical marijuana right

TYLISA C.JOHNSON |  TIMES
Kristina Risola, director of operations at Florida Medical Cannabis Clinic, sees both sides of the medical cannabis coin, as both a patient and medical professional. Here, Risola displays her cannabis medication, including a pen that vaporizes the medication.
TYLISA C.JOHNSON | TIMES Kristina Risola, director of operations at Florida Medical Cannabis Clinic, sees both sides of the medical cannabis coin, as both a patient and medical professional. Here, Risola displays her cannabis medication, including a pen that vaporizes the medication.
Published May 7 2018
Updated January 3

Medical marijuana is only just becoming widely available in Florida, and already the state is fumbling the ball. Of the roughly 1,400 doctors who have signed on to the program, nearly one in five has a tarnished professional history, giving rise to a wing of medical practice shadowed by questions. That’s a gross disservice to patients suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and a host of other maladies, and an affront to Floridians who voted for a safe and efficient medical cannabis program.

Under the state’s emerging framework, doctors in the program must complete only two hours of training and pay a $250 fee to be able to recommend medical use of marijuana for patients diagnosed with certain chronic, debilitating conditions. Voters two years ago added medical marijuana to the state constitution, and its embrace by public officials has been begrudging at best. While setting that low barrier to entry, the state makes participation unattractive to good doctors. The recommendations they must write too closely resemble prescriptions — and prescribing marijuana is illegal under federal law. The resulting pool of physicians is concerning, but not altogether surprising.

TARNISHED: Florida’s medical marijuana program is attracting troubled doctors

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Corey G. Johnson examined the database of 1,432 physicians who were registered in April and identified 262 with black marks on their records, including discipline by a medical board, criminal charges and large malpractice judgments and settlements. A patient in Fort Lauderdale visited a clinic that smelled bad and was littered with fast food trash. The doctor who treated her gave up his medical license in Colorado, the office tried to overcharge her and eventually the clinic’s phone was disconnected. There are other reports of doctors taking patients’ money up front and never entering their names in the state registry, which is required for obtaining cannabis from a dispensary. And Johnson identified several doctors with a history of prescription abuse. That’s right: Florida, the birthplace of pill mills, is allowing doctors accused of writing fraudulent prescriptions to get in on the ground floor of the medical marijuana movement.

The lack of foresight is astonishing, as is the Department of Health’s utter ineptitude in establishing reasonable and workable regulations, which other states have done with few problems. Ideally, patients suffering from chronic conditions or serious diseases should be able to seek care from their own doctor to find out if medical marijuana would help them. But not enough mainstream doctors are confident in the state’s program to participate, and that leaves patients vulnerable to receiving something less than superior care.

One in five doctors who can recommend medical marijuana in Florida has a blemish in their past. That’s too high a ratio in a medical industry that is only going to grow. The state has an obligation to make voter-approved medical marijuana readily available while providing oversight of this burgeoning industry to ensure that patients are protected. It’s not off to a good start.

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