Metro

ACLU fights new medical marijuana restrictions

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Rhode Island Department of Health over new conditions in the state’s medical marijuana policy. The lawsuit is brought on behalf of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, the Rhode Island Academy of Physician Assistants and Peter Nunes, an individual whose application to participate in the medical marijuana program was denied by the Department of Health under the new policy. 

The new conditions, instated in June, allow only licensed physicians to authorize medical marijuana for their patients. Before the change was made, registered nurse practitioners and physician assistants were also allowed to approve medical use of the drug. The ACLU’s lawsuit seeks a court order declaring that the department’s action violates multiple statutes and voiding the new conditions.

The ACLU is arguing that the department violated the Administrative Procedures Act by failing to take into account the public’s input before it changed the regulation, in addition to violating the 2006 Medical Marijuana Act, which legalized the use of medical marijuana in the state, said Steve Brown, director of the ACLU.

“In preparation for the opening of Compassion Centers in Rhode Island, the department took a closer look at the newly amended medical marijuana statute and decided to prohibit nurse practitioners and physician assistants from authorizing medical marijuana to patients,” said Dara Chadwick, chief officer of health promotion at the department. “This is based on legal analysis of the statute.” She declined to further comment on the issue.  

JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, expressed hope that the new conditions will be overturned. She said on top of the Administrative Procedures Act, the department violated the Global Signature Authority Law of Rhode Island, which states that a nurse practitioner’s signature may be substituted wherever a physician’s signature is required. The law implies that a nurse practitioner should be able to authorize medical marijuana. Nurse practitioners also function as the primary practitioners for many of the state’s patients and even work independently in some cases, giving them the same authority as a licensed physician, Leppann added. 

“The Health Department has changed the law arbitrarily and retroactively,” Leppanen said, “and this action has wreaked havoc on the health of some of our most fragile citizens.”

Peter Nunes, the main plaintiff of the lawsuit, had his access to medical marijuana cut off by the new conditions, Leppanen said. He had formerly acquired his medical marijuana from a nurse practitioner and is struggling to find a licensed physician, particularly due to the financial burden it represents.

“I think that the ACLU has a high chance of winning this case,” said Steven DeToy, director of government and public affairs at the Rhode Island Medical Society, which joined the lawsuit Monday. “Not only does the department’s policy changes violate state laws, but it also interferes with the practice of nurse practitioners and physician assistants.”