Medical marijuana bill would protect doctors by allowing them to state condition, lawmaker says

Steve Vetter

GRAND FORKS -- A Grand Forks lawmaker will submit a medical marijuana bill that he said will help put doctors’ fears of liability at ease when they recommend the substance.

Republican State Rep. Steve Vetter has drafted a bill with the help of the Legislative Council that would allow doctors to state the condition of a patient who may benefit from medical marijuana. He is working to get support for the proposed legislation.

“My proposed bill will change the law, so doctors will only be required to ‘state’ the condition of the patient, and they will not need to recommend a federally illegal substance,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “If the ‘stated’ condition is on the list of conditions in the (medical marijuana) law, the care provider can recommend what type of (medical marijuana) will work for a patient.”

The bill also would add three more conditions that would qualify for treatment from medical marijuana: endometriosis, interstitial cystitis and neuropathy.

As the law stands now, doctors can provide a written recommendation for medical marijuana use if the patient would benefit from the drug. The doctors don’t prescribe the marijuana, but instead, patients go to a dispensary, discuss dosage and use with staff there, and are recommended a product, said Jason Wahl, director of the medical marijuana division for the North Dakota Department of Health.

For all of that to happen, a doctor must have a “bona fide” relationship with the patient -- meaning, in part, the doctor has reviewed the patient’s medical records, has completed a full assessment of the patient’s condition, the patient is under the doctor’s continued care for the condition and the relationship isn’t for the sole purpose of obtaining medical marijuana.

Vetter told the Herald he is concerned doctors will not issue the written recommendation because medical marijuana still is an illegal substance as far as the federal government is concerned.

“Some doctors might construe that to be just as well as a prescription,” he said.

North Dakota voters approved a 2016 measure that would allow patients to use medical marijuana for a specific list of conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, a terminal illness and post-traumatic stress disorder. Lawmakers spent the 2017 legislative session revising the law, and the state Department of Health began this year naming who would run the dispensaries in the state.

Vetter said doctors haven’t come to him with the concerns, but he has heard stories and read articles about health care providers saying they would not provide the recommendations. He also said he has heard doctors in states where medical marijuana was first legalized took time to accept that they could recommend it.

“With all of the people … getting upset with waiting for two years, I really think that waiting another two to three years for the medical community to get warmed up to it would probably be unacceptable to the people who voted for that measure,” he said of North Dakota.

The doctors who do recommend medical marijuana may be labeled with a negative connotation, and they may get a flood of patients hoping to receive the treatment, Vetter said.

“You have a few doctors who want to take care of these patients, and now they have to pay for it with their reputation because now everyone will rush to them,” he said.

Altru Health System in Grand Forks, which has several facilities in North Dakota, is creating policy and procedures regarding the medical marijuana law, spokeswoman Sally Grosgebauer said.

“Altru anticipates being prepared by the time medical marijuana is available in North Dakota to registered patients,” she said.

Vetter said his approach to the issue is common sense, adding his bill would protect doctors while providing patients with what they need.

Wahl said he hadn’t heard about Vetter’s bill before Wednesday.

“If there is legislation that is introduced to make a change to the law that improves the law, we certainly wouldn’t oppose legislation in regards to that area,” he said.

Sen. Judy Lee, who chairs the Senate Human Services Committee, declined to comment on Vetter’s bill, saying she wouldn’t form an opinion until she hears from others and listens to hearings on the proposal. Her committee was instrumental in reviewing the current law, and when Vetter’s bill reaches her committee, she and other members will listen to any testimony on it, she said.

“I think we have to be cautious and careful about any changes that we make when we haven’t even gotten the first phase off and running on all four legs, so to speak,” she said.

Vetter said he has heard that other legislators will present bills in relation to medical marijuana, but he did not know the details of those bills.