PHOENIX - Health officials in Arizona say a small number of doctors have given the go-ahead for about 75 percent of medical marijuana cards issued in the state, raising questions about whether the program is being abused.
A report released Friday by the Arizona Department of Health Services said 24 doctors certified almost 75 percent of all cardholders from the inception of Arizona's medical marijuana program in April 2011 to June 2012. In all, 475 doctors certified nearly 29,000 patients in that period.
"A physician that is writing 1,000 to 1,500 certifications each year is not acting in his patients' best interests," said Health Services Director Will Humble, adding that he suspects such doctors are more likely to cut corners or be in it for the money.
The report said the most frequently citied reason for getting a medical pot card was severe and chronic pain and noted that the largest per capita share of marijuana patients was in Gila County, followed by Yavapai and Coconino counties. It also said one patient and six caregivers had their cards revoked during the period.
Arizonais one of 17 states to approve the use of marijuana to treat certain medical conditions such as chronic pain, cancer and muscle spasms. Arizona's voter-approved law lets certified patients grow marijuana and open dispensaries, but dispensaries have yet to open amid a prolonged legal fight.
Humble said Arizona's medical pot program is being abused by some people who are getting cards for recreational purposes. "I am a realist," Humble said. "I absolutely know the program is being abused to some degree. My job is to keep it as medical as I can."
The state says about 33,000 people have obtained pot cards since the start of the program -- the vast majority of them citing chronic pain as the reason to smoke marijuana.
The report also said that the program has raised $7.9 million for the state through $150 fees that patients must pay when they get a card. The state has spent $2.3 million to operate the program.
The report said Humble's agency has an agreement to help upgrade the state pharmacy board's controlled substances database that doctors are required to check before certifying a patient for the pot program. The improvements are aimed at improving a doctor's ability to check the patient's profile on the database. Officials say the check is meant to give doctors a full picture of a patient's treatment history.
Health officials work with the pharmacy board to see whether doctors have been assessing the database. The report recommends the faster identification of doctors who may have made false declarations on medical marijuana certifications.
State health officials have reported 11 doctors to their licensing boards for allegedly failing to check the database.
Humble said the Legislature has already made changes to the law that will help improve the law, such as allowing state health officials to share doctor information with medical licensing boards.
He said his agency will conduct training for doctors who are doing a large number of marijuana certifications so they are clear on their requirements.
Humble said one blind spot for regulators is enforcing a requirement that doctors check 12 months of a prospective marijuana patient's records before issuing a certification.
There is no way to monitor to see if that requirement is being followed because of patient privacy laws, but health officials are exploring ways to monitor it by working with the medical licensing boards.