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Audit: Colorado can’t guarantee medical pot going to qualified patients

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Greg Campbell Contributor

A state audit of Colorado’s medical marijuana program found that lax oversight of physicians by the state health department “do not provide assurance that only qualified individuals” receive state-issued licenses to purchase and use medical pot.

In particular, statistics point to an apparent epidemic of “severe pain” among men in their early 40s.

Colorado voters legalized marijuana for medical use in 2000, but the law wasn’t widely used until 2009, when the U.S. Justice Department issued an advisory memo to U.S. attorneys to lay off prosecuting medical patients complying with their state laws.

Like most other medical marijuana states, Colorado saw a huge spike in applications for people seeking their licenses, called a “red card,” and it has been widely suspected that not all of them have a medical need for it. But the state law provided at least local protection from arrest and prosecution, even though marijuana possession for any reason is still illegal under federal law.

“As a result,” the audit reads, “individuals without a debilitating medical condition who use or would like to use marijuana would be motivated to obtain a red card to significantly reduce their risk of being prosecuted for using marijuana in Colorado”

The audit concluded that some physicians — who must be consulted prior to applying for a red card — may be making inappropriate recommendations for pot use, noting that 1 percent of the doctors who have recommended marijuana have done so for 50 percent of the patients on the registry.

One doctor made 8,400 such recommendations.

Doctors can also recommend pot in excess of the legal limits — which are two ounces of useable marijuana or six plants per patient — but auditors found that some seem to be taking advantage of that ability. One doctor cited in the report recommended 501 plants for a patient and another recommended 75 ounces — nearly five pounds — of useable pot for a patient.

By far, the ailment most cited by patients is “severe pain,” which is listed in the state health database as the debilitating medical condition of 94 percent of Colorado’s 108,000 medical marijuana patients.

“Overall,” the report concluded, “we found that Public Health’s controls over access to medical marijuana do not provide reasonable assurance that only qualified individuals are receiving red cards.”

“Specifically, Public Health does not have sufficient oversight of physicians to ensure they are making appropriate recommendations for marijuana.”

An earlier audit of the medical marijuana program was aimed at the Department of Revenue, which oversees it. In that report, state officials were blasted for a variety of questionable spending decisions, including on numerous vehicles, expensive furniture and unneeded electronic equipment.

That audit concluded that the department was unable to properly regulate marijuana businesses, in part because applications for new businesses were suspended to give staff time to work through a backlog of applications.

But since application fees funded the division, it began running out of money, which made the situation worse.

Ironically, the new audit shows the public health department has been overcharging patients fees for their licenses, to the point where it has $11 million in uncommitted cash reserves, far above the statutory limits and “the highest amount of excess uncommitted reserve of any cash fund in the State subject to the requirement,” according to the audit.

Taken together, the audits paint a picture of a program that cannot control access to medical marijuana or the industry that sells it.

Auditors noted that the future of the medical marijuana industry is in question in Colorado because it recently legalized recreational use for people over 21. New regulations to oversee that market are being drafted and the state’s first official pot shops are expected to open in January.

That could cause the medical marijuana industry to shrink, since no red card — and therefore no expensive doctor’s visit — will be needed. Or, if recreational marijuana is too heavily taxed, it could be cheaper to continue paying for annual doctors’ visits and red card renewals to buy less expensive medical pot, which will not be taxed as heavily. In that scenario, the number of registered patients could stay largely the same.

Auditors gave numerous recommendations for improving oversight and operational efficiency, including suspending or reducing the $35 patient renewal fee to draw down the excess cash reserve.

Public Health officials agreed or “partially agreed” to all the recommendations.

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