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Prescribing pot in high heels

November 18, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

The physician was wearing high heels, a tight-fitting white lab coat and lots of gold jewelry, which is not quite what you expect to see when you visit a pot doctor. Nor do you expect to see a chandelier the size of a Christmas tree in a waiting room decorated like an Indian palace.

Dr. Sona Patel told me that's just who she is. Her Melrose Avenue office, she said, is designed in much the same way as her home in Hollywood.

You may be wondering what I'm doing in the office of yet another cannabis specialist, given my fruitful encounter last month with a physician in Glendale. That doctor had told me he knew nothing about back problems because he was a gynecologist, but he wrote me a marijuana recommendation after a 10-minute "exam."

But in California, you're entitled to a second opinion, and I had some more questions. I was wondering how and why a doctor goes from conventional to herbal medicine, and I called Patel, intrigued by her glamorous ads in local publications. The whole California marijuana adventure seems like an herb-fired hallucination, but what must her story be?

Before I visited Patel, I called state regulatory officials to discuss my Glendale experience. Much has been written about the explosion of dispensaries, particularly since Los Angeles has made such a mess of things, allowing several hundreds of storefront pot outlets to open without permits. But far less has been written about the doctors.

Is there any oversight for those who appear to be running patients through mills at $100 or more a pop, faster than you can open your mouth and say, "Ahhhh?"

Not a great deal.

A spokeswoman for the Medical Board of California told me that only 81 complaints have been made against marijuana doctors since 1996, and investigations have led to disciplinary action against just 10 doctors. The medical board is expected to consider early next year whether to be a little more proactive, and re-establish guidelines for conducting exams and issuing "recommendations."

Frank Lucido, an Oakland physician, has been speaking out for doctors who fear they're all being tainted by unprofessional colleagues who are rubber-stamping marijuana recommendations.

"I schedule 45 minutes for a first-time patient and 30 for a repeat patient," said Lucido, who suggests that California has become the "Wild West," with thousands of dispensaries, hundreds of doctors and varying laws from one city to the next.

Lucido said he's trying to hold the middle ground between drug war partisans who oppose marijuana altogether, and those who are ready to party on the other side, faking medical need so they can light up recreationally.

Where does Dr. Patel stand?

Her office, which doesn't look like much from the outside, sits across the street from Melrose Organic Pharmacy, where I purchased some Skywalker buds as part of my research last month. Good for back pain, said the clerk.

At Patel's office, Shannon, the office manager, was also in high heels. All right, what is this, a modeling agency or a doctor's office?

The high fashion is just a style preference, said Dr. Patel, 34, who uses her own image in advertising materials, often in different hairstyles.

But is the glamour about creating a marketing niche -- she'll fix what ails you, and she looks like a beauty queen, to boot! -- in a crowded field?

No, Patel said. But as a matter of fact, she worked as a model to help pay medical school bills, and the glam shots she uses were actually meant to market a cosmetics line that never got off the ground.

So how did she get into herbal medicine?

Patel said she grew up in Chino Hills and went to medical school in the Caribbean, having wanted to be a doctor from the time she was 5.

She ran a family practice and clinic in Hollywood, but grew weary of prescribing pharmaceuticals with potentially serious side effects to patients suffering from diabetes, AIDS, migraines and other maladies. Some of those patients asked if she would recommend marijuana instead.

"I began to research it and incorporated it into my practice," Patel said.

To her surprise, patients often got greater relief from pot than from prescription drugs -- and they reported no side effects. In 2007, she shut down her family practice on Sunset and went herbal all the way on Melrose. Her answer to the obvious question? Yes, the money is better.

Patel told me she worked briefly in San Francisco and was the subject of an unflattering TV news story in which two TV producers said that getting a recommendation from her was laughably easy. The story, which I later checked, also noted that Patel was in hot pants and high heels on materials advertising her business, and that she used the name Doc 420, the 420 being street slang for marijuana. We've come a long way since Marcus Welby.

The story was a distortion, Patel insisted.

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