Business & Tech

Federal anti-drug official seeks Mass. medical marijuana data

Jim Mone/Associated Press

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An arm of the White House’s antidrug office has asked Massachusetts and several other states where medical marijuana is legal to turn over information about registered patients, triggering a debate over privacy rights and whether state officials should cooperate with a federal administration that appears hostile to the drug.

Dale Quigley, deputy coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative, or NMI, has asked Massachusetts health officials for data on the age, gender, and medical condition of the state’s approximately 40,000 registered medical marijuana patients. Quigley is a former police officer in Colorado with a long history of speaking out against legalization.

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The NMI is part of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area initiative, a law enforcement effort funded by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In an interview, Quigley said the data are for a routine research project, in which he is looking for any correlation between how strictly states regulate medical cannabis and the rates of marijuana use among different age groups within the general public in those states.

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He insisted that he is not seeking to identify patients and that his work doesn’t signal imminent changes to the current hands-off approach by the federal government to state-regulated medical marijuana operations.

“There are no black helicopters warming up in the bullpen,” Quigley said. “I have no idea where this is going to take us yet.”

But medical marijuana proponents said the mere notion that the Trump administration is nosing around medical marijuana could scare off patients, sending them to the black market for cannabis instead of registering with state-run systems that ensure medicines are tested for potency and safety. Patients did not consent to their data being used by the National Marijuana Initiative, they said, and can’t be sure their personal information was kept private.

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“We must protect patients’ anonymity and comfort in obtaining medical cannabis without feeling like they’re being watched,” said Beth Collins, senior director of government relations and external affairs at Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group. “They’ll see this story and say, ‘Oh, the feds are going to know I’m a patient,’ and stay away. It’s an access issue.”

Some of the 29 states with medical marijuana programs already publish the data sought by Quigley on their websites. Massachusetts does not, but the state Department of Public Health, which regulates medical cannabis here, has provided Quigley with data on the genders and ages of its registered patients, saying that information is a public record.

That information does not identify patients by name. However, the department is still evaluating whether it should respond to Quigley’s request for a list of the medical conditions that prompted patients to register with the state. Some patients have rare ailments, and DPH officials are concerned it may be possible to use that data to identify them.

“Protecting patient privacy is a major consideration of our continued review,” a DPH spokesman said in a statement.

Massachusetts law prohibits DPH from disclosing identifying information about registered patients in most cases. To comply, and to guard against the use of sophisticated software that can correlate seemingly anonymous information with real-world identities, officials said they “blurred” some numbers provided to Quigley. For example, if there were only a handful of medical marijuana patients of a given age — say, one or two 90-year-olds — DPH’s spreadsheet doesn’t include the precise number but instead indicates only that were fewer than seven 90-year-olds.

The leaders of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which sponsored the 2012 ballot measure legalizing medical cannabis in the state, said changes over time to the state’s registration process mean the data sought by Quigley will be incomplete.

“There is potential for incredible studies by real medical researchers,” said Nichole Snow, the group’s executive director, “but we want that data to be credible and accurate and also confidential. I think the patients of Massachusetts would feel this is an intrusion.”

Regulators in several other states where medical marijuana is legal, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, said they were evaluating which data they could legally provide to Quigley. Officials in Maine noted that their registry is voluntary and said the state doesn’t collect demographic data from patients who sign up.

For now, the US Department of Justice is operating under congressional restraints and an Obama-era edict that essentially prohibit federal law enforcement actions against state-regulated medical marijuana operations that don’t contribute to interstate trafficking or public health and safety problems.

But Trump’s attorney general, former US senator Jeff Sessions, is a longtime antidrug hard-liner. He has sought to remove constraints on marijuana investigations, and he recently sparred with governors of legal-marijuana states who said he used flawed and outdated data to argue that legalization has caused a spike in emergency room admissions and drug trafficking.

The agency that Quigley works for reports directly to the White House, not to Sessions. But advocates worry that the data Quigley is collecting could eventually be used — or misconstrued — by US officials to help build a case for a crackdown. And they also questioned his qualifications and motivations, noting that his expertise is in law enforcement, not research or statistics, and that he has given talks around the country decrying marijuana legalization.

“He’s obviously biased,” Collins said, “and if research isn’t done right, it can show whatever he wants it to show. Why isn’t a researcher doing it? That’s a red flag to me right away.”

Moreover, various state medical marijuana programs have existed for different lengths of time, and collect different levels and types of data. That, Collins and others said, would make it difficult for even a sophisticated researcher to reconcile the numbers and produce a valid, “apples-to-apples” comparison.

Quigley himself acknowledged he is skeptical of loosening prohibitions on marijuana.

“I’ve not seen much good come out of legalization,” he said. “When you make something that has no sense of risk or harm attached to it widely available, use rates are going to go up.”

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com.
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