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California | COLUMN ONE

Taking a Leaf From 'Pot Docs'

Since 1996, a tiny cadre of California physicians has been recommending marijuana for medicinal use. They've done so at their professional peril.

November 06, 2004|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

Consider how the board handled the case of William S. Eidelman, M.D. In 2000 and 2001, undercover investigators infiltrated the Santa Monica office of Eidelman, a longtime practitioner of alternative medicine.

Each claimed a fictitious illness, according to case records. Back pain. Insomnia. One told Eidelman that smoking marijuana simply made him feel better about life. All got the green light for pot.

In May 2002, the board suspended Eidelman's license, saying he failed to give hands-on physicals, obtain medical histories, order tests. The physician claimed entrapment.

"I was given punishment normally reserved for doctors who rape a patient or botch a half-dozen operations," Eidelman said. "Even if I did go over the line in one or two cases, that isn't what my practice is all about. I treat people who are really sick."

In the end, the board hit him with a $65,000 fine and five years' probation.

Doctors like Eidelman are not recommending pot for patients with terminal cancer and end-stage AIDS, Jerzak said. "People with those sorts of serious illnesses are going to obtain the recommendations with no complaint."

The board's intense scrutiny of the cannabis doctors has drawn fire from the state's medical establishment. Jack Lewin, chief executive of the California Medical Assn., said the state should concentrate on doctors who truly endanger lives. Pursuing pot docs, Lewin said, "seems like a witch hunt."

After wrangling with the California Medical Assn., the Medical Board in May spelled out a softened approach. If physicians follow "accepted medical standards, they can avoid being investigated."

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'What Is the Problem?'

If the board has a thorn in its side, his name is Dr. Frank Lucido. He wears a ponytail and a beard, is a longtime peace activist and practices in Berkeley. He also is a sort of Marcus Welby of the left, seeing some of the same patients for a quarter of a century. Just one in five has anything to do with marijuana.

The state investigated him a few years ago, but dropped the case. Ever since, Lucido has religiously attended board meetings, urging regulators to lay off pot practitioners. "If patients aren't being harmed," Lucido said, "what is the problem?"

The doctor believes it's unfair to hold cannabis consultants to an A standard of work when "everyone else is a C." He laughs at critics who say such doctors -- paid $200 or more by a medical marijuana patient, usually in cash or check -- are in it for the money. Lucido said it's a rare year when he nets $90,000.

His office manager, Damian Disterdick, said she turns away a quarter of the callers seeking a recommendation.

"Most get really angry," she said. "I tell them to read what Proposition 215 says. This is for the seriously ill, not someone who wants to be legal."

Nicholas Feldman is one of the former. He is 28 and has cerebral palsy. Spastic paralysis knots his body. Straps hold pipe-thin legs to a wheelchair and bind his waist, forearms and biceps. His shoes are laced together to restrain flailing feet.

Despite his disability, Feldman lives life in full. He works with the disabled in San Francisco, helping them find independent-living situations. At home, Feldman takes gulps of pot from a vaporizer -- particularly right before dinner.

"Marijuana has made my life easier over the years," he says, jaw clenched, the words rolling out slowly.

In a bright examination room, Lucido listens intently to Feldman's heart and lungs. He feels his abdomen.

Later, turning his wheelchair, Feldman has a few parting words.

"They're not doing any crime," he says. "They're being doctors. They're helping people. They represent what medicine should be all about -- compassion for people. Not simply prescribing a pill."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Cannabis chronology

Physicians turned to marijuana long before California voters legalized it for medicinal use in 1996.

2,700 B.C.: Accounts of medicinal cannabis recorded during reign of the Chinese Emperor Chen Nung.

1840s: Irish physician William B. O'Shaughnessy introduces cannabis to Western medicine after witnessing its use in Calcutta.

1920s: Several U.S. pharmaceutical companies continue marketing cannabis medicines; textbooks describe it as a painkiller and sedative.

1941: Cannabis removed from U.S. list of approved drugs after Federal Bureau of Narcotics rails against "reefer madness" during the 1930s.

1970: U.S. declares marijuana an illegal drug.

1992: Medical marijuana approved in a few California cities, fueled by anecdotal accounts and early research suggesting pot's promise for the ill.

1996: Proposition 215 approved, legalizing medical marijuana for the seriously ill. Nine other states adopt similar laws, most recently Montana in November 2004.

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Sources: Medical Board of California, Society of Cannabis Clinicians, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Times staff reports.

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