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The Medical Marijuana Debate Is Focused on the Wrong Thing

The marijuana dispensaries could not exist without the enabling benefit of the estimated 1,500 California doctors, most in LA and the Bay, who offer their "patients" letters of recommendation.
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I motioned to my lower left side and told the doctor I often had severe, knife-like pains there. Probably gastroenteritis, or maybe even irritable bowel syndrome, the doctor quickly diagnosed.

A couple of hours later, at another doctor's office, I told him how hard it was for me to fall asleep, how every little thing seemed to make me nervous. Nothing to really worry about, the doc told me. Generalized anxiety disorder, for sure, he said. Oh, he quickly added, I guess I should probably, at least, listen to your heartbeat and lungs, since you are here, of course!

Nice touch, doc!

A couple of years ago, while producing an investigative television documentary on medical marijuana in California, I went, undercover, from one "marijuana doctor" to the next over the course of several days. All were easy to find, advertised in the pages of LA Weekly and elsewhere. Fees ranged from a high of $300 to a low of $65.

Not one of the doctors actually examined me. I went to, as I recall, nine different ones. Not one of the doctors questioned my made-up symptoms. Not one of the doctors asked to review my previous medical records that I was told to bring when I made my appointments, but did not. Not one of the doctors was even remotely interested in whether I suffered from asthma or some other type of real medical problem that might be exacerbated by the oft times harsh smoke from a joint.

In fact, when I told each doctor that I preferred no record be kept of my visit, each one obliged me by either turning their brief writings over to me, or, in one case, actually feeding the newly inscribed medical record into a shredding machine big enough to be proudly on display at the CIA.

Just this past week, in preparation for this post, I asked some young people (most didn't look a day over 20; some even younger) coming out of a couple of these marijuana docs' offices whether their experience was the same as mine had been when I was producing the television report. There had been no change.

Medical marijuana dispensaries have been in the news of late: The Los Angeles County District Attorney vowing to close down those that engage in cash transactions that he says are against state law; the Los Angeles City Council, which wants to place a cap of how many such dispensaries there are in the city and dictate their location to avoid their placement near schools and just about anywhere, it seems, that human beings actually live or work in this town; and, of course, the media coverage, usually a 20-something television reporter standing in front of a medical marijuana dispensary hinting about the allegedly sinister transactions that surely go on behind the closed doors.

But the focus is misplaced: the dispensaries could not exist, let alone function, without the enabling benefit of the estimated 1,500 or so California doctors, not surprisingly most in the LA and San Francisco Bay area, who offer their "patients" the requisite letters of recommendation to obtain marijuana for medical purposes.

The scientific evidence seems fairly conclusive that, for some conditions, marijuana is helpful; and, it seems to me, the economic and societal benefits of making marijuana legal are, if not beyond dispute, certainly within reason.

On the other hand, medical doctors who abuse their training and position in society to act as nothing more than enablers are another story. DAs rarely go after these docs, preferring to leave that up to the state medical board, which, when I researched and produced my television documentary, I found to be fairly ineffective. The media, too, prefers to zero in on the dispensaries because it is easier -- and legally safer -- to have a reporter do a stand-up on a public street in front of a store than it is to go inside a private doctor's office with a hidden camera.

The real problem with these medical marijuana doctors is not that that they recommend marijuana to patients they surely must know do not suffer from any real ailment, but that they do so, often, without regard to the real possible consequences their "medical" recommendations can bring about: Maybe the "patient" has high blood pressure, or low blood sugar, or asthma, or a host of other real medical conditions that could not only not be helped by toking on a joint, but may actually be made worse.

Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time To Think-The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle." He has covered police and politics in L.A. since 1995 and currently contributes investigative reporting to KNX 1070 Newsradio.

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