Medical marijuana doctor: Clinic was 'a marijuana mill'

SEATTLE -- There are an estimated 100,000 people in Washington with medical marijuana cards, but nobody knows for sure because prescribers aren't required to keep track.

Two medical professionals are now going on the record to say the abuse of writing marijuana authorizations is widespread.

Recreational marijuana use was legalized late last year, but the laws are still murky.

"We are sort of in this awkward interim period where you can have it, but you can't get it. It's like the marijuana fairy gives it to you," said State Rep. Roger Goodman.

For many marijuana users, the fairy is a medical marijuana recommendation, which has been around for 14 years.

With one, a Washington resident can go into a growing number of medical marijuana businesses and legally buy pot. Unlike other Washington residents, who can only legally posess an ounce of pot, medical marijuana users can have a pound and a half of marijuana.

State law says medical marijuana is intended to help patients suffering from "terminal or debilitating medical conditions," such as cancer or chronic pain that can't be treated by traditional methods.

But that's not really the case.

At one Tacoma clinic known for issuing cannabis recommendations with no appointment, I sat in a packed waiting room and filled out a questionnaire saying I had an occasional headache.

Even before I saw a doctor, I paid $139, which is price of an authorization. In another room, I expected a regular doctors visit. Instead, it was a state licensed advanced registered nurse practitioner Skyping in from Hawaii.

I told him I suffered occasional headaches and had no medical records to back up my claim. My Skype visit lasted three minutes, and I walked out with a recommendation saying, " I have diagnosed this patient ... As having a terminal or debilitating condition."

I then went to a similar clinic in South Seattle that advertised on Craigslist offering recommendations for $99 without medical records. A courteous naturopathic doctor who seemed to genuinely care about my health saw me for 10 minutes.

I said I had an occasional stress headache and wanted to try cannabis. Ten minutes and $99 later, I had my recommendation.

"it was a marijuana mill," said Dr. Corie Linn, a naturopathic physician.

"We just felt like it was a cattle call and it was all about money," said Sharol Chavez, an advanced registered nurse practitioner.

Linn and Chavez say they're putting their state licenses to practice medicine on the line by speaking out.

"It was around 30 patients a day and on one day I saw 42 patients," Linn said.

Both women used to work at South Sound Medicine in Lacey, which is one of many local clinics known for issuing cannabis recommendations.

"Of the 3,000 patients I saw in a year, one came in that wasn't for medical marijuana, and that felt incredible wrong to me," Linn said.

To verify their claims, I went to South Sound Medicine. Just like the others, I paid my money and left with a recommendation.

But the money doesn't stop at the first visit. All of the clinics offer renewals ranging in price from $49 to $100 a year. Many don't even require an office visit and can be renewed online.

"It was money driven," Chavez said. "How many patients you can see, we didn't get breaks, or I didn't get breaks."

There was also a financial incentive for Linn and Chavez. The more patients they saw, the more they were paid.

Both women have since left South Sound Medicine.

"I was exhausted and I was terrified I was going to lose my license," Linn said.

They say they're speaking out now to expose the clinics that are forcing physicians to abuse state law.

An attorney for South Sound Medicine denies that the clinic is a marijuana mill.

"Their focus is to provide services to clients. That's what their business is, and cannabis recommendations is but one aspect of that company," said attorney Josephine Townsend.

State health officials can discipline a licensed health care worker for not following the rules -- including the medical cannabis law -- which can include the loss of their medical license. But those same authorities have no jurisdiction over a clinic which is considered a business.

Only a small handful of licensed health care workers have been disciplined for abusing the medical cannabis law since it was adopted in 1998.