Medical marijuana program sees few rejects

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — People applying to become part of New Mexico's 6-year-old medical marijuana program are seldom rejected.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that of the 12,977 applications submitted to the New Mexico Department of Health since the program began in 2007, only 25 resulted in flat-out denials.

The newspaper also reports that some patients approved for the program may not have met the criteria to legally use medical marijuana to ease debilitating pain or illness.

A family-practice physician in Albuquerque, Dr. Nicholas Nardacci, approved 98 percent of the patients whom he evaluated for the cannabis program.

As of Aug. 1, 9,607 people were approved to use the drug under the program overseen by the Department of Health, which relies on physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners around the state to screen and determine initial eligibility of patients. The Department of Health reviews the certifications submitted and make the final decisions.

Over the past 15 months, the state Medical Board has initiated disciplinary proceedings against two providers who allegedly violated the standard of practice in certifying patients for the program.

The two disciplinary cases spurred the board to propose rules for physicians or physician assistants who sign certifications for patients to use medical marijuana. The proposed rules are aimed at ensuring that doctors observe standard medical practices, such as having an ongoing relationship with a patient and informing a patient's other health care providers before signing off on a patient's eligibility for the program.

Some critics say the Medical Board is overstepping its authority by wading into the medical marijuana controversy.

Paul Livingston, an attorney representing Nardacci and a physician assistant whose certifications of medical marijuana patients came under Medical Board scrutiny, contends that both have immunity from prosecution. Livingston accuses the board of interfering in an issue that has national implications for doctors.

"This is exactly why the Legislature granted immunity to health care providers, so they wouldn't be subject to this kind of thing," Livingston said during the hearing on the board's allegations against Nardacci.

Nardacci is accused by the board of an array of violations, including buying medical marijuana for himself from a registered sex offender neighbor instead of a state-authorized dispensary. He is also alleged to have fired a shotgun near the feet of the stepfather of a former girlfriend who worked in his office. Nardacci said the shotgun shells were blanks and he was never charged with a crime by police.

Nardacci said last week that the board "drummed up" the case against him and "now they've come up with a whole set of rules. So they're trying to get me for rules they never had."

The board has alleged that Nardacci has used marijuana excessively and habitually, and has examined and treated patients while under the influence of marijuana.

Nardacci, who is approved to use medical marijuana for chronic back pain, testified at the hearing that he smokes marijuana before he sees patients in the morning and at night. He said he smokes a strain of cannabis that doesn't intoxicate.

Nearly 100 percent of patients Nardacci recommended for the program "were accepted by the DOH without criticism or rejection in any way," Livingston said.