Despite Lack Of Dispensaries, One Doctor Already Recommending Medical Marijuana

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Regulations for medical marijuana in Massachusetts officially go into effect Friday.

While medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the drug has been legal under state law since January, after voters approved it in a ballot measure last November.

But even before formal regulations were in place, and without any registered dispensaries in the state, one doctor from Northampton had begun writing marijuana recommendations for her patients.

Dr. Jill Griffin's office in Northampton, Mass. (Henry Epp for WBUR)

Dr. Jill Griffin’s office in Northampton, Mass. (Henry Epp for WBUR)

Dr. Jill Griffin says she was not immediately sold on marijuana’s medicinal use, seeing it as an excuse for people to legally get high. After the law passed, she says patients started asking her about the drug. At first she disregarded those questions. But then she says she decided to take a chance by writing one recommendation for an elderly cancer patient.

“She was able to eat and get up and go out and go shopping,” Griffin said. “And prior to that, she had really been housebound.”

After that initial success, Griffin says she did more research, and decided to open her small office exclusively for medical marijuana. For $200, she meets with patients, examines their medical records, and decides if they’re eligible. The law states that a patient must have a “debilitating medical condition,” such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease or HIV. But under new regulations that go into effect Friday, a doctor can determine “other” debilitating conditions that could respond to the drug. Griffin says that’s where most of her patients fall.

“Most common is chronic pain, and amongst the chronic pain is low back pain,” she said.

Part of the reason she’s chosen to open her office, she says, is the hesitance of many primary care doctors to recommend marijuana to patients. And though Griffin says many of her patients are new to her, she maintains the required relationship with them through follow-up calls and visits.

Alan Berkenwald, a physician at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, says he was initially open to the idea of medical pot, but now he’s skeptical due to the lack of scientific research.

“My fear is that our rush to embrace medical marijuana now, well in advance of thought-out studies, is an example of that phenomenon where we’re embracing a cultural belief and trying to squeeze it into a medical application well before the data supports it,” he said.

Berkenwald says he’s particularly concerned about the open-ended ability of doctors to decide what conditions qualify. But Griffin says she is careful to sift out patients who may be trying to get a recommendation just to get high.

“There are certain qualities and characteristics of those diseases that a patient should be able to explain to you, and if that’s not there, they can’t qualify,” Griffin said.

She says she’s turned away several patients but approves over 90 percent who come to her office. And she has prescribed the drug to patients with conditions that some may find dubious. Tim, one of Griffin’s patients who declined to give his last name, was given a prescription for attention deficit disorder and insomnia. He says he’s now concerned about access to the drug he’s been prescribed.

“You can’t get it if you don’t have the avenue to get it, and plus there’s so many places that are not doing the right thing,” he said. “So they may be adding certain chemicals or pesticides, which you definitely don’t want.”

Tim won’t say how he currently gets marijuana. Up to 35 marijuana dispensaries can open in the state, but none will likely open until the end of the year. Griffin says she’s worried about the current legal gray area for her patients.

“What I tell my patients is, you could go into a known area where people purchase marijuana, and you can legally buy the marijuana if you take your letter with you, and you can buy it, but the person selling it to you can be arrested,” Griffin said.

Once a patient does get their hands on the drug they’re allowed to have up to 10 ounces every 60 days. Berkenwald says that’s far too much for one person, and could result in patients selling off their excess pot — a practice known as diversion.

“History has shown this happens,” he said. “You don’t control the prescriptive narcotics, they get diverted. Why would we not think that this would happen to marijuana, which has a high street value?”

Berkenwald says he hopes to see stronger regulations, limiting its use to patients with serious and terminal conditions. Griffin says for now she’s trying to stay cautious in her practice. She hopes to see more clarification in the law and qualifying conditions, particularly because marijuana is still illegal according to the federal government.

“I don’t want to put my license at risk,” she said. “I want to have a great practice with wonderful people, and I do have wonderful patients, but that’s a little bit scary.”

Plenty of questions remain about how medical marijuana will be used and enforced in the state, but unless lawmakers make future changes to the law, the current regulations are here to stay.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    berkenwald, which is it? is there a “lack of scientific research” or “that’s far too much for one person”?. how could you have any idea how much is “too much” since you dont have any of the “scientific” information you covet? Pain is not a serious condition? we give people oxycontin for pain does he really feel oxycontin is better for people and less of a diversion risk than cannabis? the new law created stiff penalties for diverting cannabis where as non-diverted cannabis is no longer criminal to possess so i think that will go a long way to mitigating that “problem”. moreover cannabis is sold at dispensaries for prices either the same or higher than street prices in california( and in california unlike MA people are allowed to grow their own so the dispensaries have competition) with no bulk discounts so there is not really any profit in it compared to oxycontin which you can get a whole bottle of for a simple co-pay.

    on a side note NPR should change its nomenclature in regards to cannabis. marijuana is a spanish word the correct english name for cannabis sativa is cannabis. Another english word is hemp. the term marijuana was first applied it to expliot anti-mexican racial stereotypes and to make people think it was something forign and not a plant george washington and others grew and the raw material for many manufactured goods of the time. NPR its about time you broke with Hearst’s yellow journalism and stop being racist or always refer to beer as cerveza to at least be consistant

  • Rick O’Connell

    This won’t matter if marijuana is made legal in the state. Then there will be no need for prescription marijuana unless you are under 21 years of age. I believe it will be made legal before year end.

  • Storm Crow

    Why should this matter to YOU? Just read these 3 articles- “Marijuana May Slow Alzheimer’s” (WebMD), “An ultra-low dose of tetrahydrocannabinol provides cardioprotection” (Pubmed), and “Pot compound seen as tool against cancer” (SFGate). for more information on the many medical uses of CANNABlS, run a search for “Granny Storm Crow’s List”. Once the medical benefits of CANNABlS become known, the need for full legalization becomes obvious!

    • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

      the us govt owns the patent on cannabis’ cancer fighting attributes

      • kevin_hunt

        And they have licensed patents to medical marijuana companies (kannalife).

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    this article makes it sound like she is the only doctor writing recs in MA, she is not

  • David B. Corn

    So thankful to have a physician like Dr. Jill Griffin in this area. PCPs that I know are not yet open minded enough to go out on a limb for their patients. Wish there were more like her. Chronic pain should automatically qualify a patient just like cancer and HIV.

  • John Robert Norton

    yes I have epilepsy and my seizures happen when ever they want to .medical cannabis stops the epilepsy in its tracks . as soon as I get the pre seizures aura I smoke and it is GONE! its the greatest thing, but I can not find a dispensaries here in south boston so I am screwed and back on the chemical pills that cause nausea. sleep disorders and dizziness this feeling sick has to stop / please help

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