Goleta Doctor Cracks Down on Pot-Seeking Patients

July 29, 2007

Barney Brantingham, Santa Barbara Independent

Reefer Madness: Years ago, if you wanted to smoke marijuana, you’d likely turn off the lights, pull down the shades, and hunker down before puffing.

Today, you might amble down to one of Santa Barbara’s eight medical marijuana shops, letter from a doctor in hand, and score pot to ease your physical woes.

But getting that letter might be a lot harder than some people seem to think, especially if you try to make an appointment with Dr. David Bearman, a well-known Goleta physician.

It’d be easier — and probably a lot cheaper, from what I hear — to score weed on the street than to jump Dr. Dave’s hurdles.

Although he’s not familiar with how other Santa Barbara area doctors operate under Prop. 215 (the California medical marijuana measure approved by voters), he feels that certain California out-of-town chains offer brief, what he calls “HMO-style” appointments with patients claiming medical need to alleviate their ailments.

“Frankly, most doctors, patients, and dispensaries are concerned about these brief office visit approvals.”

I have a sore back and although I wouldn’t dream of soothing the aches and pains with wacky tobaccy, even temporarily, I asked Dr. Dave what it takes to get one of his letters of recommendation.

First, he said, you can’t even get an appointment without a careful screening. “We do not make an appointment for just anyone,” unless he has a pretty good idea that he or she is likely to qualify under the Prop 215 measures, Bearman told me.

“We try to see the patient’s medical records before their appointment, or if not, have them bring [their records] in with them.” Otherwise, Bearman said, the only time he would issue a letter without copious documentation is when an exam documents a serious problem — such as a missing limb, lumbar or cervical fusion, multiple knee surgeries, or the like.

And if you suspect that most of his patients are college-age kids trying to score, Bearman says 90 percent of his clients seeking marijuana letters are 25-years-old or older, and very few have Isla Vista addresses.

So what about those “HMO-style” doctors, as Bearman puts it? “The position of these doctors, who may see the patient only briefly before granting their approval for medicinal cannabis, seems to go something like this:

“If a patient tells them that they have a particular medical problem and that cannabis is useful to them, these doctors will recommend cannabis. They say that they have no reason not to approve its use when it provides medical benefits, because they see cannabis as being extremely safe and because they can.”

“I take a more conservative view,” Bearman says, blaming the problem on what he calls “vague” guidelines set down by the Medical Board of California, which allows for “wide latitude for interpretation by the MBC.”

Because the MBC has been on what he calls “a witch hunt” investigating doctors who OK marijuana letters, contrary to a court ruling, many physicians avoid the issue, Bearman said.

“At least 60 local doctors have referred patients to me, 15-20 local doctors have made a few approvals, and at least three other physicians are making recommendations for patients for whom they are not the primary care provider.”

“I have been working with other like-minded physicians to set up a specialty of ‘cannabinology,’ which would lay out acceptable medical and ethical standards. No one is benefited by the perception or reality of people who are not ill [getting] medical cannabis approval.”

Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara City Council soon plans to consider a possible moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries, along with guidelines. Some residents have complained about the location of the present ones, which apparently wouldn’t be affected by the moratorium.

Supervisor Bearman?: Dr. Bearman, by the way, says he’s thinking of running for the 3rd District county supervisorial seat now held by Brooks Firestone of the Santa Ynez Valley. Other names are being mentioned in Goleta to oppose Firestone, who gives every impression of seeking re-election next year. This will be a hot one.

Barney Brantingham can be reached at barney@independent.com or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.

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