Arizona health officials are looking to root out physicians who are improperly recommending medical marijuana for patients who claim to suffer from chronic pain.
As part of the effort, the state Department of Health Services wants to collect more nuanced information about those patients with chronic pain, The Arizona Republic reported in a story published Saturday.
Patients seeking permission to use medical marijuana cited chronic pain as a debilitating condition about 26,500 times from July 2012 through June 2013. Officials say that represents about 73 percent of Arizonans who qualified to use the drug.
In addition to gathering more information, Health Services Director Will Humble said he wants to continue intensive training for doctors who recommend marijuana in high volumes.
A report released Friday by the health department analyzed the second year of the state’s medical marijuana program and found that a small number of physicians write a big share of the pot recommendations.
The report stated that 472 physicians certified 36,346 patients from July 2012 through June 2013. Three-quarters of patient certifications were issued by naturopathic physicians, who combine traditional medicine and natural approaches in treating patients.
The review also found that medical doctors certified 6,434 patients while osteopaths certified 2,587 patients. Three homeopathic physicians certified 50 patients.
Humble said he was troubled that so few physicians were writing so many marijuana recommendations.
Approved by voters in 2010, Arizona’s medical marijuana program allows people with certain debilitating medical conditions to use marijuana. They must obtain a recommendation from a physician and register with the state, which issues identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers.
Humble said the numbers raise concerns that patients are seeking recommendations from what he has called “certification mills” instead of primary-care doctors who are generally more knowledgeable about patients’ medical histories.
“It’s a problem that all the states (that allow medical marijuana use) face: Just a handful of physicians write the certifications,” Humble said. “We’ve got to start doing a better job to broaden the base — and I don’t mean writing more certifications — but . have them be written closer to the patients’ medical home.”
State health officials are also considering changing the way they interpret rules regarding the distance patients must live from medical marijuana dispensaries in order to grow their own pot.
The Department of Health Services issues cards that allow patients to use medical marijuana, grow it or both. Those cards must be renewed each year, and those who live within 25 miles of an operating dispensary cannot, in most cases, be allowed to grow the drug.
The controversy is over how the distance is calculated, whether it’s “as the crow flies” or “as the car drives.” State health officials currently interpret the rule as the area within a 25-mile radius of a dispensary.
Many patients and advocates say the rule should be interpreted as driving distance. They argue the state’s interpretation unfairly covers too much ground and bans too many people from growing in their homes.