While 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the federal government has not. The federal regulations and political debates leave hospitals, physicians, and patients vulnerable.
In D.C., 3,730 patient recommendation forms were distributed to physicians, but only 113 physicians showed interest in the medical marijuana program. Of that number, according to the Department of Health media spokesperson Najma Roberts, only 56 doctors are participating.
Dr. Patrick Fasusi, a pain specialist and anesthesiologist for over 35 years, said the disparity in local and federal laws is one of the impediments facing medical providers interested in participating.
“My colleagues fear clamping down by the government,” said Fasusi. “Many physicians work in hospitals. They are not going to jeopardize the hospital's licensing or accreditation as long as the issue of medicinal marijuana is illegal with the federal government.
"Those who are solo, like myself, are susceptible to federal audits. No one wants the type of scrutiny that will come with prescribing patients medicinal marijuana."
Fasusi said he knows the criteria. "I examine my patients and every supporting document very carefully to qualify them for treatment. It is also very important to obtain the patient's oral and written history," Fasusi said.
Sometimes, the results are not what the patient wants. "If for whatever reasons, I don't think the patient qualifies for this type of treatment, I will inform [the patient]. There may be other forms of treatment to help them," Fasusi said.
Shawnta Hopkins, founder of the MMJ Medical Marijuana Advocates Group, said the structure and content of the law presents many challenges to their clients and physicians. Her family-owned business educates clients, refers to doctors, and assists in preparing for Department of Health approval.
“Many participating doctors will only refer their established patients. Others want new clients to pay as much as $700 cash for an extensive examination to determine if they qualify. Low-income clients don't have that kind of money. Many physicians are not willing to take the risks associated with the program, so the high fees are a deterrent [for patient requests]."
Hopkins said many physicians want the patients to stay with them for six months trying other prescriptions drugs before referring them for medical marijuana. "Physicians don't want to be known as the 'marijuana doctor.'"
The feds have been coming down hard on medical marijuana practice because it is still a gray area. It's not clear what can and cannot be done.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) recently introduced a bill to legalize medical marijuana. It was voted down. But representatives from his office said public momentum is growing in support of the measure. “The more that those who are benefitting from medical marijuana tell their stories and step out of the shadows, the more politicians and citizens are going to see that they are not drug addicts, but simply people using marijuana as medicine to treat their conditions," said Patrick Malone, media specialist for Blumenauer.
In June, the African Wholistic Health Association Inc. (AWHA) and Abacus 6 are hosting an event in the District with world-renown herbalist Dr. Sebi to discuss, among other topics, the medicinal qualities of marijuana.
“Marijuana's universal usages have been proven through time with many cultures to heal ailments. The herb is from God's medical pharmacy,” said Dr. Kokayi Patterson, AWHA executive director and a detox specialist for 40 years in the field of substance abuse. “It's time to stop holding Americans hostage to the pharmaceutical companies when there are herbal and alternative remedies that are proven more effective."
To accomplish that, changing the mindset on Capitol Hill is crucial. "We don't expect federal marijuana prohibition to end by 2016, but it certainly will not be long after that. In the meantime, Congressman Blumenauer and his allies are going to continue making incremental progress where they can on areas of consensus like more access for medical researchers to marijuana, and more support for veterans who need medical marijuana," Malone said.