Medical marijuana sting targets doctor

October 19, 2007

David Hasemyer, San Diego Union-Tribune

When an undercover police officer asked Dr. Robert Sterner to prescribe marijuana for his dog, the doctor joked that only two-legged patients were covered by the state's medical marijuana law.

So the officer suggested Sterner appoint him caregiver for the dog, a designation that would allow him to obtain marijuana in the animal's name, according to a Medical Board of California accusation.

While a hidden camera rolled, Sterner said, “There you go. That's being creative,” according to the accusation.

The police officer walked out of the doctor's office with signed authorizations that allowed him to buy marijuana for his dog, as well as for himself.

Now the Medical Board wants to revoke Sterner's license, accusing the 50-year-old Middletown doctor of gross negligence in issuing medical marijuana recommendations to two undercover police officers. He is also accused of incompetence for his lack of knowledge about the safe use of marijuana and its therapeutic value.

Sterner was among a number of doctors targeted in a sting by the San Diego Police Department, including one doctor whose office consisted of a desk and three chairs but no medical equipment. The doctors were investigated because they seemed to be issuing a significant number of marijuana recommendations to young patients who didn't have serious medical conditions, according to the accusation filed in Administrative Law Court.

Sterner's attorney, Zenia Gilg, said the sting was illegal and nothing more than harassment.

“The purpose of the undercover investigation of the San Diego physicians, including Dr. Sterner, was clearly to intimidate and silence them,” Gilg said a letter to the Medical Board.

The police investigation follows years of debate over a 1997 California law – born out of voter-approved Proposition 215 – that allows marijuana use for medical reasons. California was the first of a dozen states that have legalized marijuana for medical use, although federal drug laws still make any use of the drug illegal.

Some say medical marijuana laws properly legitimize marijuana as a therapeutic drug. Others say they are just backdoor attempts to legalize marijuana.

Since the California law went on the books, the Medical Board has investigated 20 complaints filed against doctors who prescribe marijuana. Five doctors have been disciplined statewide.

In addition to Sterner, three other doctors with San Diego County connections have faced or are facing accusations from state medical authorities in connection with prescribing marijuana.

In an interview, Sterner defended his prescribing practices, saying he must rely on the symptoms described by his patients. He spoke contemptuously of the police, saying they were simply trying to “lampoon” his practice by going undercover with a hidden camera.

Sterner said he is a Harvard graduate and has a bloodline to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, a document he pointed out was written on paper milled from cannabis hemp.

He spoke passionately about his belief in the marijuana's medicinal value.

“I want to see as many options as possible available to my patients,” Sterner said. “It causes no harm and provides great benefit.”

Sterner said he has been practicing medicine for 24 years and until he began prescribing marijuana the Medical Board had never taken issue with his conduct.

“The accusation is snatching at straws,” he said, adding that despite the police sting no criminal charges have been filed against him. “There were no laws broken.”

Detectives posed as patients

The San Diego Police Department sent two undercover narcotics detectives to Sterner's office last year posing as patients complaining of insomnia and migraines, ills far less serious than those contemplated by the framers of the marijuana law.

Before the officers met with Sterner, his receptionist spelled out the arrangement, according to the accusation: A six-month recommendation for marijuana use would cost $125 and a one-year recommendation $200.

Sterner gave the first detective, Kimber Hammond, a quick exam while the doctor's dog Junebug curled on a chair next to the examination table, according to the accusation. Sterner took her blood pressure and temperature, shined a penlight in her eyes, listened to her chest with a stethoscope and tapped her wrist with a small hammer to check her reflexes.

During the exam, Sterner told Hammond that hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine hurt a person's brain but cannabis “adds to your brain,” according to the accusation. He also prescribed a drug that state authorities say was meant to disguise a positive drug test for marijuana.

When the other undercover detective, Conrado DeCastro, visited Sterner, the doctor called the marijuana recommendation “insurance” against criminal charges for possession, according to the accusation. “It has credibility and legitimacy,” Sterner told the detective, according to the accusation.

When DeCastro asked Sterner to issue a marijuana recommendation for his arthritic, 9-year-old Labrador retriever, Sterner “replied he was not sure if Proposition 215 applies to dogs as well as people,” according to the accusation. Instead, he suggested that DeCastro share some of his marijuana with the dog, Storm, according to the accusation.

But after DeCastro proposed having Sterner appoint him Storm's caregiver, he got the doctor's signed authorization.

Gilg, Sterner's attorney, said the conversation makes for good television but nothing else.

A caregiver recommendation goes to the patient, who then designates someone to obtain marijuana for them, Gilg said. Not the other way around as the Medical Board and undercover officers say happened, she said.

“It's almost laughable what went on here,” Gilg said.



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