Tim Steller: Dicey certification business cuts into medical pot's credibility

2013-03-17T00:00:00Z 2013-03-18T12:01:41Z Tim Steller: Dicey certification business cuts into medical pot's credibilityTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The day after police raided the Get Legal Cannabis Certification Center, 6647 E. 22nd St., a crowd of about 20 angry customers gathered outside.

Byron Patton and Ron Middleton, who own a hearing-aid business in the same small building, grasped their frustration - but they didn't like the scene.

"It was like a lynch mob," Patton said.

Thus ended the short life of the sort of business Arizona's medical marijuana industry should avoid being associated with if it wants to be taken seriously. Get Legal used garish signs and attracted a somewhat sketchy clientele who scared away hearing-aid customers next door, Patton and Middleton said.

I visited a list of five purported medical-marijuana certification centers around Tucson on Thursday, and only one was open. Not coincidentally, that one, the Arizona Medical Marijuana Certification Center at 4745 N. First Ave., was the only professional-looking office in the bunch.

The certification centers are not regulated by the state, but they exist for legitimate reasons. Many Arizona doctors are afraid to write recommendations for their patients to get medical-marijuana cards because marijuana is still illegal under federal law. So, the certification centers review the patient's medical records, have an appointment with the patient, then make the recommendation if it's justified.

Also, the online-only application system can be complicated for those who aren't computer savvy.

When Get Legal's owner, Stuart Green, was starting the business last September, he told Patton and Middleton it would be low-profile and professional, they said.

"That's not what happened," Patton said. "It was like a three-ring circus."

Customers parked all over the place. Some of them looked like gang-bangers. The police came at least twice.

Application not filed

The last police visit was on Feb. 28, when Counter Narcotics Alliance officers served a search warrant, looking for evidence not of drug crimes but of fraud.

Get Legal customers such as Tucsonan Joe Carpenter said they paid $268 for a doctor's appointment and for the company to submit their application for a medical-marijuana card to the Arizona Department of Health Services. That includes the $150 fee charged by the state, plus an extra fee for the doctor's visit.

Carpenter, who said he suffers chronic pain from a pinched nerve in his neck, paid on Dec. 4. He checked back in early January, and again in early February to see why he hadn't received his card. Green told him the state was backed up in processing applications, Carpenter told me.

Finally, on Feb. 25, Carpenter asked the state health department why there was such a delay in processing his application. They told him his application had not been submitted at all.

That fits with what investigators were learning. They started investigating in January, Tucson police Sgt. Chris Widmer said, when they heard Get Legal was not submitting the forms they told clients they would submit.

"The company began sending false emails to them, appearing to come from Arizona Department of Health Services, saying there was a backlog," Widmer said.

The clinic's doctor, Lindsey Pearson, got wind of the problem and left Get Legal in mid-February.

"I started getting nasty, threatening messages from patients," Pearson said.

On Feb. 28, the officers searched Green's home as well as the business. They arrested him for unlawful possession of marijuana for sale as well as unlawful possession of narcotic paraphernalia, but they are continuing to investigate possible fraud, Widmer said.

Green did not respond to messages seeking comment for this column. On his voice mail, he left a message saying: "The business is suffering from difficulties at this time. We hope to be up and running by mid-April. Thank you."

"We run a medical clinic"

Others in the medical-marijuana industry are cleaning up after Green. Pearson, the naturopathic doctor who worked as an independent contractor at Get Legal, is making sure patients he saw there get the certifications they paid for.

An announcement on his website says those Get Legal patients should call him to set up a no-cost visit.

Arizona Medical Marijuana Certification Center, which has seven statewide locations including the one in Tucson, also is seeing Get Legal patients for free, co-owner Jason Reis told me. It isn't the first time his business has picked up the slack from failed certification centers, as a couple in the Phoenix area did the same thing, Reis said.

"There's many certification centers where you'll walk in and there's a guy behind the counter with a T-shirt and jeans on. Not at our centers - we're completely medical," Reis said.

"We run a real business. We run a medical clinic."

Arizona's medical marijuana dispensaries have publicly asked officials to close the unregulated marijuana "clubs" that have sprung up around the state.

If the medical marijuana industry wants to be taken seriously - not as a bunch of stoners taking advantage of legal loopholes until pot is legalized - it should also steer people away from sketchy certification centers.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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