State board is investigating doctors who OK medical pot
March 31, 2007
Anne Krueger, San Diego Union TribuneIt was a new one for Chaparral High School administrators.
Two students had shown up on the El Cajon campus high on marijuana. When questioned, they produced a medical marijuana recommendation from a Mission Valley clinic called Medimar, claiming their drug use was permitted.
The students were suspended and the Grossmont Union High School District sent a letter to parents reminding them that marijuana is prohibited on any school campus, doctor's note or no.
The January incident drew national attention after media outlets such as Fox News erroneously reported that Grossmont Union officials were supplying marijuana to students who had a doctor's OK.
The incident also got the attention of Damon Mosler, chief of the narcotics division of the San Diego County District Attorney's Office. Mosler has long been frustrated that he is powerless to prosecute doctors who might be signing off on marijuana use for anyone willing to pay.
The 1996 passage of state Proposition 215, allowing the use of medical marijuana, and a subsequent federal court ruling prohibits prosecution of a doctor for recommending medical marijuana.
“I have yet to find a criminal outlet for me to prosecute them,” Mosler said. “If I could, I would.”
In the Chaparral case, guidelines set by the Medical Board of California appear to have been followed and Mosler is not targeting Medimar or its doctors.
But in a June 2006 letter to the medical board, Mosler said he was troubled by the practices of four other doctors: Joanne Benzor, Alfonso Jimenez, Robert Sterner and Mary Winscott. They failed to conduct exams before recommending marijuana, he said, or they recommended excessive amounts of the drug.
The medical board is investigating Jimenez, Sterner and Winscott. The board had already accused Benzor of gross negligence in handling medical marijuana patients and her case is pending.
Mosler wrote his letter after the District Attorney's Office and the San Diego Police Department conducted an undercover sting.
Sterner had his dog in the room while meeting with one officer posing as a patient, Mosler said. Jimenez gave an officer an ashtray with his logo along with a lighter, he said.
Winscott and Benzor could not be reached for comment. Jean Talleyrand, owner of the clinic where they worked, defended them but said neither works for him anymore.
Sterner declined an interview, but said in an e-mail that he has been unfairly subjected to repeated state and federal investigations that he described as a “political pogrom.”
Jimenez vehemently denied Mosler's allegations and said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is wasting taxpayer resources by pursuing medical marijuana doctors and patients.
“It's a witch hunt,” he said. “They're going to demonize it as much as they can.”
Physicians cannot prescribe marijuana, but they can recommend the drug for patients suffering from ailments ranging from AIDS to migraine headaches. The state medical board does not investigate physicians who recommend marijuana as long as they examine the patient, develop a treatment plan, periodically consult with the patient, and keep proper records.
A parent must provide consent if marijuana is recommended for a minor. In the Chaparral case, one student was 18 and did not need parental consent and the other had visited the clinic with his mother, Mosler said.
He said he didn't know if either student had a medical condition that warranted the recommendation.
Medimar physician Kenneth Johnson said he could not discuss his patients. He said he treats only minors who have a parent with them.
Mosler said Benzor, who is based in Riverside County's Morena Valley, also practiced at Medicann, a medical marijuana clinic in Clairemont. He said she recommended marijuana in quantities far above the amount needed, in one case suggesting more than 100 pounds for one patient.
In a filing against Benzor in May, the medical board said she admitted she did not examine patients before recommending marijuana, and that she pre-signed medical marijuana certificates issued by a physician's assistant working for Benzor at a Big Bear clinic.
Mosler said a December 2005 federal raid of marijuana dispensaries showed that most patients who got medical marijuana recommendations were under 30, and many got them from Sterner or Jimenez. He said only a handful of doctors in the county make their living handing out the recommendations.
Most patients said they suffered from anxiety, insomnia or depression. Very few received marijuana for cancer, glaucoma or AIDS, Mosler told the medical board.
Mosler said patients got recommendations to use marijuana longer if they paid more. Sterner told a patient he could get a six-month recommendation for marijuana for $125, or a one-year recommendation for $200, Mosler said.
“If I have a chronic illness, I think I should see my doctor more often than every six months,” Mosler said.
The undercover officer who visited Jimenez said the doctor did not conduct an exam and met with him in a room with no medical equipment. He said Jimenez told him he could get his diagnosis of back and neck pain validated by an acupuncturist whom Jimenez recommended.
Jimenez said he had no record of the agent coming to his office. He said he examines patients before making a recommendation, and all patients must sign a form acknowledging that they will see another doctor if they want to continue using marijuana.
Jimenez said he has seen the benefits that medical marijuana brings to his patients, and vowed to continue despite the obstacles.
“It is something we're very passionate about,” he said. “We're not going to go away.”