Medical pot prescribed mostly for aches, pains

It’s not cancer or Alzheimer’s or glaucoma that had droves of Michiganders going to doctors over the past two years to get certified to use medical marijuana.

The vast majority of about 64,000 people authorized to use marijuana as medicine have unspecified ailments that cause severe and chronic pain, muscle spasms and nausea, state data obtained by the Free Press show.

And just 55 doctors certified about 45,000 patients — 71% of all the authorized medical pot users.

In all, 2,197 doctors wrote at least one certification for a patient asking for marijuana approval.

The Michigan Department of Community Health data, obtained by the Free Press, is the first peek at what has happened under the state’s new medical marijuana law.

The top nonspecific ailments cited by medical marijuana patients were severe and chronic pain, muscle spasms and nausea.

Of specific diseases, cancer was the most cited. It was given as a reason for certification by 1,407 patients (2.2%).

The numbers come from a broader report the department compiled on the medical marijuana law that is expected to be released within days.

Opponents: Pot law being exploited

Advocates and opponents of medical marijuana had very different views of the first snapshot showing how patients and doctors are responding to Michigan’s 2-year-old law permitting pot’s use as a painkiller.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, who led the opposition to the voter-passed ballot proposal in 2008, said: “This is just what we predicted. It is totally out of control.”

He responded when a reporter informed him that most certifications under the law were for chronic pain, not specific illnesses and that 55 doctors were writing most of the prescriptions in Michigan.

“We were told (medical marijuana) was designed to treat a very narrow set of  … chronic and severe illnesses,” Schuette said, “and what’s going on is that this poorly drafted law is being exploited by those who want to legalize marijuana or make money … or by unscrupulous doctors.”

Karen O’Keefe of the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, which helped draft the legislation that was overwhelmingly approved by voters, strongly disagreed.

Chronic and severe pain is a serious medical condition, one that results in millions of Americans seeking medical treatment and receiving prescription painkillers, O’Keefe said.

“It is absolutely unfair to suggest that severe pain is not a serious condition,” she said.

O’Keefe said the campaign for Proposal 1 in 2008 also was transparent about the range of conditions, both specific and general, that could justify medical marijuana use.

“We never said it was just cancer,” she said.

Rob Mullen, a Farmington Hills attorney involved in multiple medical marijuana-related prosecutions, said he is convinced there are a lot of recreational pot smokers who have obtained Michigan medical marijuana certificates, and there are certainly physicians who see a huge volume of medical marijuana patients.

But that doesn’t necessarily signify abuse of the law, Mullen said. Some doctors are turning to marijuana as a relatively less risky treatment for patients who might otherwise become addicted to or overdose on prescription painkillers, he said.

Mullen said he is concerned the interests of legitimate medical marijuana patients are in danger of being obscured or overwhelmed by the confusion and conflict created by overly zealous law enforcement authorities on one side, and the pro-legalization and commercial factions on the other.

Kelly Niebel, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, declined to comment on what, if any, conclusions the department has drawn from the data. In fact, the MDCH will no longer be the regulatory agency after this weekend, Niebel said.

Under a reorganization ordered by Gov. Rick Snyder, processing of medical marijuana certification will move to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

“They are aware there are some outstanding issues, and they will be looking into them,” Niebel said. “We’re all committed to administering the law within the scope that was intended by those who voted for it.”

Russ Westbury, a partner in the Ann Arbor Medical Clinic, which deals exclusively in marijuana referrals, said he wasn’t surprised that some doctors specialize in medical marijuana referrals.

“Some have made it their primary focus,” Westbury said. “The doctors that we have, they believe in it” as a less-addictive alternative to pain relief than some prescription medicines.

He said he uses marijuana for back pain and he’s not unusual — something the state data confirms.

“Of course, chronic pain is the most frequent, because there are so many people affected by that,” he said.

He estimates he spends about $25 a month for marijuana, and uses it mostly at night when he’s trying to get to sleep. He has known others who consume hundreds of dollars of pot weekly.

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