Oct. 15 2012 12:00 AM

Did collectives really make 'bundles' off patients with cards issued via Skype?

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith
Photo by Dave Rolland

Even though he's set out to systematically rid San Diego of cannabis dispensaries, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith sympathizes with legitimate medical-marijuana patients. He really does. 

Or so he set out to explain in an op-ed published in U-T San Diego last Wednesday. So, why is Goldsmith spreading spurious claims about the medical-marijuana community? 

He wrote: 

Let's be clear: In approving Proposition 215, California voters did not legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. This notion of pot shops on every corner is ridiculous unless the goal is to sell to children who frequent our neighborhoods. Many (but not all) of the marijuana dispensaries we have shuttered were phony attempts at achieving legalization through the back door. Those who were making bundles of money enticing customers with phony medical marijuana cards "issued" through Skype by a phony "provider" were no better than the neighborhood drug dealers.

Yes, Jan, let's be clear and let's also be accurate. --- The next day, we sent Goldsmith's office an email asking for him to cite his sources. Specifically, we wanted to know two things:

First, what evidence did he have that medical-marijuana dispensaries were accepting patient recommendations issued via Skype? 

Second, what were the non-phony dispensaries that he shuttered? 

Silence for all of Thursday. Silence all of Friday. Closed over the weekend. Monday morning, we emailed his office to ask what the status was. Finally, this afternoon we received the following statement: 

Thank you for your questions. As you can see, I am now focused on the broader issue of amending federal law as a logical first step toward creating access for terminally ill patients. The "Skype" problem is just one of the many abuses of Prop. 215. My focus now is to work toward a permanent solution. I would encourage you, as a journalist, to look into what issues are in play that stand in the way of amending federal law, so that we can create a sound system here in San Diego that will provide real relief to those in need.

Deflect much? 

Do you see any support for his claims in there? One would figure, with all the prosecutorial resources at his disposal, he'd have some deposition or exhibit sitting on his desk, or at least a report or analysis compiled by a law-enforcement organization. How about a link to an article? 

This Skype claim has been floating around for awhile, but in all of our experience covering medical-marijuana collectives in San Diego, we've yet to directly encounter a doctor who offered that service, a patient who claimed to have received that service (Update: See comments), or a dispensary that would knowingly accept a recommendation issued under those circumstances. 

That's probably because the Medical Board of California explicitly stated in 2004 that "The initial examination for the condition for which medical marijuana is being recommended must be in-person." 

Sure, that leaves room for follow-up appointments and renewals via Skype, but even then, collectives have questioned the legitimacy of the practice. 

"I know in San Diego, specifically, collectives were going out of their way to not accept recommendations unless they were issued by a physician that had a chance to examine the patient in person," says Eugene Davidovich, a spokesperson for the San Diego Chapter of Americans for Safe Access, which hosted regular training seminars for collective operators back when collectives were in widespread operation. 

James Schmachtenberger, president of the Patient Care Association, says the San Diego-based group of collective directors directly addressed the issue of Skype recommendations. 

"It's not something that is really accepted by the community," Schmachtenberger says. "If we were to find out a doctor was doing that, we decided that, as a group, we should boycott that doctor and not accept recommendations from that doctor." 

The same attitude seems to carry over to the national stage as well, according to Steve Elliott, the national marijuana blogger for Voice Media (formerly Village Voice Media). 

"Doing medical marijuana authorizations via Skype is not a common practice; in fact, in four years of being closely involved in the MMJ industry, I've not heard of it being done outside of rural areas in Montana where physically traveling to the doctor's office can be a real challenge," Elliott says, via online chat. "For San Diego's City Attorney to claim it is in common use in that area severely strains my credulity. I'd have to see evidence of that before I'd award that claim any merit at all."

Indeed, the whole meme seems to have originated in Montana with a 2010 article in the Billings Gazette in which a reporter did obtain a recommendation via Skype.  Unlike California, Montana's medical board had not addressed the practice, though they did ban it three months after the story ran.  

Now that's not to say it hasn't happened in San Diego. There may have been some shady operators out there, but the fact remains that Goldsmith couldn't cite any. 

As for Goldsmith's challenge to us to look at what issues are standing in the way of amending federal law: Politicians who can't back up their claims are at the top of our list.  


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