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Audit: 1 doctor OK’d medical pot for 11,810 patients

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A single Michigan doctor certified 11,810 medical marijuana applicants in 2015, according to a new state audit released Thursday. But the Auditor General’s Office indicated it was uncertain if any of the certifications were the result of fraud.

That physician certified 14 percent of the state’s medical marijuana applications, the state Auditor General’s Office found. Another 22 physicians certified 46,854 patients, or 56 percent, of the state’s total permits certified in 2015, the audit said.

The number of certifications indicates a potential problem, according to a Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs spokesman.

“It is an indication that the physician may not have a bona-fide physician relationship with the patients,” LARA’s Michael Loepp said. “Clearly, any doctor allegedly abusing their privileges is a concern that we will work to address.”

But the audit “isn’t saying that there’s fraud,” said Kelly Miller, state relations officer for the state Auditor General Doug Ringler. “We don’t know if there’s been fraud or not.”

LARA maintains a database showing which physicians issue certifications for medical marijuana card applications but state officials can’t disclose any information identifying the doctor in question because the state’s voter-approved medical marijuana law forbids it.

The department now plans to conduct a review of marijuana card certifications doctors issue to patients, among other changes suggested in the audit, Loepp said.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said he was concerned but not surprised by the audit’s findings. He also said he thinks the public should learn the doctor’s identity.

“I think it’s important for the public to know,” said Bouchard, an outspoken opponent of the state’s medical marijuana law. “If that’s basically somebody flying in from another state and really doesn’t have a patient-doctor relationship, that’s something for the medical board to know.”

The state’s auditor general says Michigan should do a better job verifying doctors’ medical marijuana certifications to reduce the risk of fraud — particularly the risk of doctors illegitimately helping patients receive medical marijuana cards.

The Auditor General’s Office said it found the state registry program that certifies medical marijuana patients has not yet implemented an anti-fraud measure to make sure physicians are issuing legitimate medical marijuana certifications despite having developed such an audit process.

“Well that’s absolutely a ridiculous number,” said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.

Jones supported a medical marijuana reform package of bills signed into law this year by Gov. Rick Snyder that regulate and tax provisioning centers.

“It’s an impossibility,” he said of the doctor who certified nearly 12,000 patients. “Obviously, with these kind of numbers, I don’t see how, physically, a doctor could see that many people, examine them and determine they have a legitimate reason to have a card.”

The audit notes that primary care physicians often have a caseload of between 1,200 and 1,900 patients.

Jones said the package Snyder signed — which could generate up to $64 million a year for the state — could help fund additional investigation or oversight into doctors who certify medical marijuana patients.

Others say the audit’s finding is not necessarily an example of fraud.

“I would not jump to the conclusion that there’s fraud involved just based upon the number,” said Matthew Abel, a criminal defense lawyer who specializes in marijuana cases. “Clearly, whoever this physician is is specializing in writing medical marijuana” certifications “and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Abel said many doctors refuse to certify patients’ applications, “so it’s not surprising that a clinic specializing in medical marijuana recommendations would be a busy place.”

The state processed more than 246,100 applications and renewals in 2015 for medical marijuana cards. During the audit period, some 450 people applied for a medical marijuana license every day.

Officials should also try to improve the timeliness of the application process to make sure that people don’t have to wait longer than necessary to receive their medicine, the audit said.

mgerstein@detroitnews.com