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Medical marijuana is everywhere. What should reporters be asking?

Medical marijuana is everywhere. What should reporters be asking?

Picture of Kathleen McGrory
[Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images]
[Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images]

Medical marijuana has been a hot topic in recent months, especially as states like Florida and Pennsylvania launch new initiatives around the controversial drug. Some form of medical cannabis is now legal in 30 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 16 states allow use of low-THC products.

Research has yet to definitively explain how, if at all, marijuana helps patients with certain conditions. But there are still plenty of other questions journalists should be asking. How can reporters use data and public records to investigate medical marijuana? Here are some places to start:

1) How are licenses to grow and distribute medical marijuana awarded in your state? 

As medical marijuana programs roll out, governments are awarding licenses to grow and distribute the drug. In many cases, a limited number are available, and the process has been shrouded in secrecy. In New York, for example, state officials “refused to discuss” how they chose five companies to grow and sell medical marijuana in 2014, and withheld documents explaining the process from the Journal News. Reporter David Robinson discovered that one of the winning companies had political connections — and had once been accused of bid-rigging by federal prosecutors. 

Other states have had problems. Two years after the Journal News story, Fenit Nirappil and Aaron Gregg of The Washington Post found potential conflicts of interest within the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission. Specifically, some of the “independent” experts hired to review applications to open medical marijuana businesses in Maryland were connected to the very businesses whose applications they were reviewing. One assessed a proposal from a company where her husband was a manager.

This kind of reporting isn’t new; it is akin to investigating how a government contract was awarded. In the case of medical marijuana licenses, the records will likely be kept with the state health department or within a smaller agency created to handle medical marijuana. When I requested the applications submitted in Florida in 2015, some of the information was redacted to protect trade secrets. But many of the proposed business plans were available, as was more general financial information. Additionally, reporters should be able to obtain information about who is scoring the proposals, and how and why winners were selected. The Post reporters got their story through a records request.

You should also be on the lookout for lawsuits or administrative challenges related to the process. In addition to being potentially newsworthy themselves, they may contain new insights and information. 

2) Who has access to medical marijuana? 

For many patients, access to medical marijuana or even low-THC cannabis depends upon access to a physician who can recommend it. Florida health officials regularly update a list of physicians who are certified to recommend medical marijuana. Last year, Sun-Sentinel reporter Dan Sweeney used that data to reach some interesting conclusions. He determined which county had the most doctors who can recommend medical marijuana per capita. (Spoiler alert: It was Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys, with one doctor per 8,208 residents.) He also found counties in the conservative Florida Panhandle that lacked a single physician with the necessary credentials.

A quick Google search shows similar data is readily available in other states, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania, among them. (In Texas, which has a population of more than 28 million, fewer than four dozen physicians are listed as participating in the low-THC cannabis program. I’d like to see those doctors on a map.)

Other news outlets are investigating how states distribute medical marijuana ID cards —  another factor that can that effectively block access to the drug. In March, Arek Sarkissian of POLITICO Florida obtained documents showing the state’s efforts to develop a rapid ID card production system had fallen months behind schedule. What’s more, Sarkissian used state data to show that, at the time, some 30 percent of patients in the state’s Medical Use Registry had yet to receive an ID card or had an ID card in processing.

3) Who are the doctors recommending medical marijuana?

My colleague Corey G. Johnson, of the Tampa Bay Times, did a deep dive into this issue in May. He took a comprehensive look at the 1,432 doctors certified to recommend medical marijuana in Florida, examining their professional discipline records, malpractice histories and any criminal incidents. What he found: Nearly one in five had some sort of blemish on their record.

“Some of the doctors have been fined, suspended or stripped of their licenses in other states,” he wrote. “They’ve misdiagnosed conditions, falsified records and written prescriptions for people they never saw. They’ve been jailed for domestic violence. A few have sexually abused patients, including those as young as 14 and 16.”

Compared to other doctors, Johnson found, marijuana doctors were 2.8 times as likely to have been disciplined by the Board of Medicine, and 2.4 times as likely to have been charged with a crime. “It’s like the Wild Wild West,” one medical marijuana advocate told Johnson.

I won’t give away the rest of the story, but I will point out that a Democratic lawmaker who helped pass the medical marijuana law in Florida said the Times analysis made her “blood boil.” She is considering proposing changes.

This sort of analysis could be replicated in other states. ProPublica has published an excellent state-by-state guide on how to look up a doctor’s license online and obtain any related disciplinary documents. Court records are also relatively easy to search, both for criminal cases and malpractice suits. Some states like Florida also publish professional liability claims.

Johnson told me he used social media to find leads and connect with patients. “Sites like GoFundMe and Yelp are great avenues for finding patients or people who have dealt with marijuana doctors,” he said. “There are Yelp reviews of the doctors. There are people who are trying to raise money so they can go to a doctor and be treated with marijuana for their illness.” 

His big-picture takeaway: “Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.”

4) Who is profiting?

As always, follow the money.

Here’s one example of what you might find: In this sweeping series, the Providence Journal showed how legal loopholes and loose regulation in Rhode Island enabled entrepreneurs to prosper “around a so-called ‘non-profit’ enterprise and a sometimes-taxed medicine that costs as much as $450 an ounce.”

The approach also works in states that have legalized recreational pot. Take a look at this story from the Orange County Register. The newspaper found that cities and counties across California have made tens of thousands to millions of dollars from the industry this year alone, and that recreational consumers are paying as much as 40 percent tax on every legal transaction.

Other states are ripe for similar investigations. As long as state regulations struggle to keep pace with a rapidly growing industry, there will be plenty of leads for reporters looking to ferret out corruption and failures of oversight. 

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