Some doctors charging hundreds of dollars for medical marijuana recommendations that can’t be used to buy marijuana

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Alex Griffith, a 30-year-old retired military veteran who lives in Delhi Township, recently paid $220 for a doctor’s recommendation he hoped would allow him to use marijuana to treat his PTSD.

“Marijuana helps me control my condition way better than Prozac and all those other pills doctors want to give you,” said Griffith, who suffers from bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts.

The former Marine infantryman who served in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012 said he wants to be “first in line” when the 56 retail dispensaries licensed to sell medical marijuana in Ohio begin opening their doors in the coming months.

But the one-page recommendation letter he got from Dr. Trent Austin, an emergency medicine doctor in Batesville, Ind., who’s also licensed in Ohio, won’t do him much good

A doctor’s recommendation is just the first step toward obtaining a medical marijuana patient ID card, which is necessary to buy marijuana from retail dispensaries.

And recommendations can’t be used to get a patient ID until the Ohio Board of Pharmacy opens its online registry for medical marijuana patients, which has been delayed until a yet-to-be-determined date.

No one in Ohiohas a genuine medical marijuana card – despite a lot of confusion and claims from people that they do. It’s a frequent topic of debate in the Enquirer’s Ohio Medical Marijuana Facebook group  the latest source of confusion in Ohio’s delay-plagued medical marijuana program. 

Many confused about medical marijuana ID

Meanwhile, prospective patients desperate for treatment continue to spend hundreds of dollars for doctors’ recommendations that they can’t use to buy marijuana legally in Ohio or any other state.

“I’ve had many people come into my office who’ve said they’ve got friends who already have their cards,” said Dr. William Sawyer, a Sharonville family physician. “We try to explain to them that’s not possible.

“But there’s a lot of misinformation and misleading marketing going on in the state of Ohio, and people are very convinced of what they’ve been told by these organizations,” Sawyer said.

Groups such as the Ohio Cannabis Connection and Ohio Marijuana Card, which employ networks of doctors licensed to recommend marijuana in Ohio, bill themselves as one-stop shops for patient ID cards.

“In order to access Ohio’s marijuana dispensaries, patients must first obtain their medical marijuana card, and Ohio Marijuana Card is here to help!,” reads a banner on the Ohio Marijuana Card homepage.

But the groups can’t issue the cards themselves, and their doctors’ recommendations can only be applied toward a patient ID card when the registry opens.

“At some level, they’re fooling people into believing they have something that they don’t,” Sawyer said, referring to the confusion between a recommendation letter and an ID card. “It’s unfortunate that that’s happening because it creates problems for us who are doing it correctly.”

Sawyer, who is among about 300 doctors certified by the state to recommend medical marijuana, said he has consulted with some of his patients about using medical marijuana.

But he said he won’t recommend a patient for treatment until the patient registry opens.

That could take a while.

Most of the more than two dozen cultivators licensed to grow medical marijuana in Ohio aren’t expected to begin delivering products to dispensaries until early next year.

Patient registry still on hold

The patient registry was expected to open in July but put on hold when it became clear dispensaries wouldn’t open until later in the year, at the earliest.

Under House Bill 523, which legalized medical marijuana in Ohio in 2016, a doctor’s recommendation can be used as an “affirmative defense” against prosecution for possession of a small amount of marijuana.

The affirmative defense expires 60 days after the registry opens, and regulators say opening the registry without dispensaries selling medical marijuana would leave many patients without legal protection.

Once the registry opens, Griffith said his doctor has promised to use the information he provided for his recommendation letter to create a patient profile on the registry, as required by law.

But Griffith will still need to respond to an email from the pharmacy board asking him to confirm the information in his profile.

In addition, he’ll have to pay an annual fee of $25 – half the regular rate because he’s a veteran – before he can receive a digital identification card with a bar code corresponding to his profile.

The card can be downloaded to a smartphone or printed out on paper.

But Griffith must have his ID card – not just a doctor’s recommendation – to even enter a licensed dispensary.

Recommendation letters offer false hope

“My doctor told me all I have to do is sit back and wait until the registry opens, and I should get a card in the mail,” he said. “Every day I’m looking for that card in the mail that will let me know the registry is open.”

Dr. Austin did not return several calls to his office over the past week.

Rob Ryan of the Ohio Patient Network –  a pro-marijuana coalition of patients, caregivers and medical professionals – said he’s heard many stories like Austin’s.

“There’s definitely a lot of confusion out there. And, there are some opportunistic doctors out there,” Ryan said.

Still, Ryan said it was unfair to characterize the recommendation letters as completely worthless because they can be used as an affirmative defense.

But there’s no guarantee a judge will accept the defense, and some judges have already rejected it.

“It’s definitely not a bullet-proof,” Ryan said.

Only a registered medical marijuana card grants the holder the right to possess, consume and transport marijuana under state law.

And Ryan acknowledged the lack of understanding can leave patients vulnerable to unscrupulous doctors charging exorbitant fees for recommendation letters that have no value at the dispensaries.

To find a reliable doctor, Ryan advises his members to “go to the doctors they’ve been dealing with for years.”

But seeing a family doctor for a recommendation letter isn’t always possible.

Most doctors won’t recommend marijuana

Less than 1 percent of the 41,533 medical doctors and 6,430 doctors of osteopathic medicine licensed by the state have been granted certificates to recommend medical marijuana by the State Medical Board of Ohio.

That means most medical marijuana patients and caregivers are paying out of pocket for recommendation letters from doctors who won’t accept insurance coverage.

Recommendation letters can cost anywhere from $200 to more than $500 without insurance, based on advertised prices.

By comparison, the average price of a new uninsured patient appointment is about $160, according to a study from Johns Hopkins University.

Medical board officials say they have no control over recommendation letter pricing because House Bill 523, which legalized medical marijuana in Ohio in 2016, didn’t give them that authority.

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