Over 1,000 dispensaries in California sell medical marijuana to people with recommendations for the drug from a doctor. But federal officials believe that some physicians may be facilitating the illegal export of pot to other states.
Late last year, dozens of drug agents raided a house in Boston just a few miles south of Fenway Park. They arrested alleged members of a Jamaican street gang, and seized weapons, cash and hundreds of pounds of marijuana. In on the raid were sheriff's deputies from Fresno, California. Working with the FBI, the deputies had tracked the pot thousands of miles from the Central Valley where it was grown.
"To follow this weed all the way to New England was something else," said Fresno County sheriff, Margaret Mims.
Mims says the suspected traffickers operated pot farms openly using doctors' approvals, and then shipped it all out of state.
"It just proved what we felt all along that this was not medical marijuana use," said Mims.
Law enforcement says the Fresno case highlights a growing concern: medical doctors providing legal cover for drug traffickers.
"In this case in Fresno County you have primarily two doctors that have written recommendations for all these outdoor growers," said Bill Ruzzamenti, a former DEA agent, who coordinates a regional drug task force in the Central Valley.
He says the doctors' recommendations, which are required under state medical marijuana laws, allowed the growers to cultivate the pot without interference from the cops.
"At a minimum, their activity is irresponsible. And if not criminal it certainly borders on criminal activity," Ruzzamenti said.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE POT RANCH
We went with Ruzzamenti and Fresno Sheriff 's Lieutenant, Rick Ko, to the area where the pot that was shipped to Boston was grown. It's a cluster of small farms that mingle with nut and fruit orchards along the western edge of a suburban country club.
In front of one now-empty plot, Ruzzamenti and Ko find a certificate stapled to a fence post with doctor's signature stating how many pot plants a patient can grow.
"They're the ones who say its recommended for 60 plants," said Lieutenant Ko.
"Sixty plants for one person," Ruzzamenti responded. "That's incredible. These grows produced probably 2000 pounds of marijuana, maybe more. That's a lot of marijuana. Wholesaling it out at $3000 a pound. Do the math. Somebody got rich."
DOCTORS FACE LITTLE OVERSIGHT
So far, federal prosecutors have indicted six people who allegedly ran these grows. Their trial is scheduled for this fall. And while two local doctors are named in a criminal complaint, they may never be indicted. That's because state law and court rulings protect doctors, giving them broad leeway to recommend as much medical marijuana for a patient as they see fit.
"I know there are many great doctors out there who truly are doing it for the right reasons," said Dr. Jean Talleyrand, CEO of Medicann, a statewide chain of physician-run clinics that posts ads for medical marijuana services on the Internet.
Talleyrand says Medicann physicians, and other doctors, are convinced of marijuana's effectiveness to treat illnesses. But, he concedes that some irresponsible doctors have jumped into the business to make a quick buck.
"If a doctor's not well policed, there can be and there have been many abuses. I've seen them. So we need to police ourselves and we're trying to police ourselves."
Under Prop. 215 the state imposes little oversight of doctors who recommend marijuana. Unlike some other states, there is no central database to track doctors recommendations or their patients. That means that several different growers can produce marijuana in the name of the same patient based on a single doctor's recommendation.
"It's personally up to the doctor, and 215 takes away anybody's right to second guess that," said George Mull, head of the California Cannabis Association, a group that represents dispensaries and is lobbying for tighter regulations. Like the cops, Mull is concerned about illegal growers taking advantage of the system.
"There's a damn good likelihood that all those plants aren't ending up in registered and legal dispensaries, but might be making their way across the country."
Mull says California needs a statewide registry for doctors, patients and marijuana recommendations. But Kris Hermes of Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group for patients, says many of them wouldn't sign up.
"You set up a registration program that's mandatory, and you immediately chill participation because many patients are not going to want to participate for fear of incrimination."
Hermes says the state medical board already has authority to revoke the licenses of doctors who abuse medical marijuana laws -- but that's happened only in rare cases. Currently the state osteopathic board is seeking to shut down one of the doctors named in the Fresno case. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors say they're stepping up efforts to go after people -- including doctors -- who use medical marijuana as a cover to violate federal law.
[This story was produced in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.]