Some Southern California doctors are signing prescriptions for medical marijuana without ever examining or even meeting the patients, an NBC4 I-Team investigation has found. Authorities say this practice is clearly against the law, but it is providing a steady stream of customers for the pot shops.
The Los Angeles area has dozens of medical clinics that advertise online and in newspapers, saying you can get a pot prescription – known as a “recommendation” – for as little as $25. The “recommendations” can then be taken to pot shops, or dispensaries, to purchase marijuana.
Last month, the LA City Council voted to shut down the 800-plus dispensaries within city limits, saying the shops are magnets for crime. But there’s been comparatively little attention to the clinics that funnel customers to these dispensaries.
During hidden-camera visits to several clinics across the LA area, the NBC4 I-Team found that getting a “recommendation” to buy pot is often a simple formality.
By law, to get a recommendation, a licensed doctor must perform a medical exam on the patient and determine that he or she has a serious illness that could be treated with medical marijuana. Authorities say the doctor must personally complete this examination.
But that’s not what happened when the I-Team sent a producer complaining of back pain to the Happy Medical Clinic on Melrose Avenue in the Fairfax district of LA. The clinic’s waiting room was busy, and a man in a white coat was seeing patients about every 10 minutes.
The producer was called into a room by a man who identified himself only as “Steve” and said he was a physician. Steve did not perform a physical examination of our producer, but he filled out a chart labeled “medical exam” and wrote down that he’d checked the producer’s heart, lungs and blood pressure – among other things – even though he never touched him.
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The meeting with Steve lasted five minutes. The receptionist then asked the I-Team producer to pay $65 cash, and he was given a recommendation to buy marijuana, signed by Dr. James Hartleroad, a licensed MD. Dr. Hartleroad wasn’t at the clinic at the time, and had never met our undercover patient.
“It’s an absolute joke,” said Joseph Esposito, director of the Bureau of Specialized Prosecutions for the Los Angeles County District Attorney.
Esposito said California law is clear: “The doctor has to do the exam; the doctor has to sign off on that exam; and the doctor has to actually recommend the marijuana,” he said.
So, the question remained: Who was Steve, the man who said he was a doctor at the Happy Medical Clinic? NBC4's I-Team found out his name is Steve Semak. His social media pages say he’s a massage therapist and an acupuncturist, not a doctor. State Medical Board records do not list him as a licensed doctor.
The I-Team asked Semak to speak, but he sent a message on Facebook declining to talk. As for Dr. James Hartleroad, the I-Team found him working 67 miles away from the Happy Medical Clinic, at a San Bernardino hospital where he’s a heart surgeon.
“Is that your signature?” the team asked Dr. Hartleroad, when we caught up with him leaving the hospital. “Yes,” he replied, about signature on the recommendations from the Happy Medical Clinic.
Hartleroad said the Happy Medical Clinic often uses physician assistants to do marijuana exams, and he told the I-Team the practice is legal. When the I-Team tried to tell him that authorities say the practice is illegal, he drove off.
Dr. Hartleroad did call but declined to sit down and talk to the I-Team. The next day, NBC4 received a letter from Happy Medical Clinic’s attorney, Jennie Levin, asking us to not air video of Dr. Hartleroad.
Ms. Levin said, “Utilizing a physician assistant for evaluation of the patient is within accepted standards,” and that there is nothing in the law that prohibits the clinic’s practice of having a doctor review that evaluation and then approve the recommendation. Ms. Levin’s assertions are in direct contradiction of the District Attorney interpretation of the law.
NBC4 repeatedly asked Dr. Hartleroad for an interview, to discuss what the District Attorney told us, but we did not hear back from him or the attorney.
Happy Medical isn’t the only such clinic operating in this manner. The I-team found other clinics in LA's Mid-City district and in Venice, where exams were being conducted by physician assistants.
“A physician's assistant can participate in the exam,” said Esposito of the DA’s office. “But the doctor still has to perform the ultimate examination” to determine if the patient could benefit from medical marijuana.
Medical marijuana clinics and dispensaries have proliferated since 1996, when Californians passed Proposition 215, the initiative that made it legal for doctors to prescribe marijuana for seriously ill patients and only after they did a thorough medical exam. But experts say the public might not support the medical marijuana industry as it’s evolved.
“Prop 215 was a well-intentioned law,” Esposito said. But as for marijuana recommendations handed out illegally by clinics, Esposito said: “This type of conduct is not what people support."
Click here to read the recommendation obtained by the NBC4 I-Team.