At least four additional Massachusetts physicians recently received visits from federal drug enforcement investigators who told the doctors they would have to sever ties with proposed medical marijuana dispensaries or risk losing their license to prescribe potent medications, according to a Newton lawyer.
That brings to seven the number of doctors who got the unexpected ultimatum from the US Drug Enforcement Administration in an action underscoring the tension between federal and state marijuana laws.
Since Wednesday, the Globe has been pressing the DEA about its investigators’ actions. A spokeswoman at the agency’s Washington headquarters declined requests for an interview, and on Friday released a terse written statement.
“It is not unusual for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to contact DEA registrants,” the statement said.
“DEA enforces the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and as a regulatory agency, it also ensures that those who are registered with DEA to handle controlled substances — including physicians, hospitals, and pharmacies — are aware of their obligations under the CSA,” it continued. “It would not be appropriate to comment on specific interactions with registrants or any ongoing investigations.”
Robert Carp, the Newton lawyer representing four physicians who were contacted by the DEA in recent weeks, said the doctors could face a host of related legal problems. The four are in addition to three doctors identified by the Globe in an article Friday that detailed instances of DEA investigators visiting the homes and offices of doctors to deliver the stark news.
Carp said some of the doctors he represents, who are top administrators in companies approved by state regulators for preliminary medical marijuana dispensary licenses, loaned thousands of dollars to the companies for licensing and lease fees, purchasing equipment, and hiring staff.
“They are faced with the choice that if they take the DEA at face value and leave, what happens to the contractual choices that they made?” Carp said. “Do they walk away as a physician, as an investor, or as an officer of the company?”
He said that if the doctors sever all ties, including taking back the money they loaned, they risk lawsuits from business partners who counted on that money. Their departures, he said, could leave the companies vulnerable to charges of misrepresentation from investors who put in money assuming the doctors would be involved.
Carp said he advised the doctors who received DEA visits to ask the agency for time to confer with their attorney before deciding whether to walk away from the dispensaries or give up their federal license to prescribe painkillers and other potent medicines.
Federal law bans any use of marijuana, but Massachusetts voters changed state law in 2012 to allow medical use of the drug. Massachusetts is one of 22 states that have legalized medical marijuana, with many doing so since 2010.
While courts have upheld the rights of physicians to recommend marijuana to their patients, establishing that the federal government must not interfere with that doctor-patient relationship, it is unclear whether physicians who serve in administrative roles in marijuana dispensaries are similarly protected.
Carp and other lawyers contacted by the Globe said they could find no instances of DEA investigators issuing ultimatums to physicians involved in medical marijuana dispensaries in other states.
Randi Kahn, a spokeswoman for the American Medical Association, a national physicians trade association, said she had not heard of such actions in other states, but was further reviewing the issue.
The DEA’s action has left some Massachusetts doctors, whose livelihoods depend on offering patients pain medications and other drugs, with little option but to resign from the marijuana companies, where some held prominent positions.
“We are reviewing contracts, leases, also case law for what the DEA is doing,” Carp said. “This is a new era.”