The US Drug Enforcement Administration's push to get Massachusetts doctors out of the medical marijuana business drew the ire of members of Congress Wednesday, with one California lawmaker accusing the agency of creating an "atmosphere of fear" among physicians.
US Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, was commenting on the agency's ultimatum to Massachusetts physicians to sever all ties to marijuana companies or relinquish their federal licenses to prescribe certain medications. He called the action short-sighted during a conference call with national news organizations.
"What they are doing, obviously, is not only suppressing doctors, but wasting resources," said Rohrabacher, who sponsored a measure approved by the House last month to restrict the DEA from using its funding to impede state medical marijuana laws. "If they want to fight crime, let's use those resources to hire police to come and do more patrols in neighborhoods where there is high crime."
US Representative Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who cosponsored Rohrabacher's amendment last month, chided the DEA during the call, calling the agency heavy-
"It's intimidation," Cohen said. "We should encourage doctors to be involved with medical [marijuana] dispensaries . . . yet they are trying to run people off."
The DEA is targeting doctors who are listed as part of the management or board of directors of proposed marijuana dispensaries. These doctors, under state rules, would not be allowed to recommend marijuana for their patients.
At least seven Massachusetts physicians have said they recently received the DEA ultimatum, in an action that underscores tension between federal and state marijuana laws, the Globe reported last week. Federal law prohibits any use of marijuana, while Massachusetts is one of 22 states that allow medicinal use of the drug.
The DEA notified state health officials before it began contacting doctors last month. In early May, officials from the DEA met with regulators from the Department of Public Health about a variety of topics related to drug-diversion prevention and informed the state of its plan to visit doctors affiliated with proposed marijuana dispensaries, said a state official who was briefed on the meeting but does not have authority to speak publicly.
The federal officials said a doctor's involvement with a marijuana dispensary might affect the doctor's DEA license to prescribe or administer narcotics and other controlled substances, the state official said.
State regulators did not notify dispensary applicants of the impending federal action, but addressed any questions applicants may have raised about the issue, the state official said.
State regulators are conducting extensive background checks on applicants after problems surfaced earlier this year, including misrepresentations and conflicts of interest involving several of the companies.
The DEA has declined repeated Globe requests for an interview about its actions in Massachusetts.
"It is not unusual for the Drug Enforcement Administration to contact DEA registrants," the agency said in a brief statement released last week. "It would not be appropriate to comment on specific interactions with registrants or any ongoing investigations."
The agency directed further questions to the US Department of Justice, which declined comment. Last August, the Justice Department issued a memo to federal prosecutors intended to clarify the agency's position on marijuana enforcement, a directive that seemed to suggest it would step back from interfering with the growing number of state medical marijuana laws. But questions remain about the conflict between state and federal marijuana laws.
Rohrabacher's comments Wednesday came in a conference call that highlighted struggles by researchers to obtain federally approved marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse for medical studies, as described in a new report by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance.
All but two of the nine members of the Massachusetts House delegation voted in favor of the Rohrabacher measure to prohibit federal interference with state medical marijuana laws. Representatives William Keating and Joseph Kennedy, both former prosecutors, opposed the measure.
"Our laws require federal agencies to play an active role in the regulation of controlled substances; no one drug should be an exception," Kennedy said Wednesday in a statement. "That being said, when it comes to conflicting policies around marijuana, federal authorities need to provide clarity and transparency in their enforcement approach, so the rules of the road are clear."
Representative Michael Capuano said he supported the Rohrabacher initiative because he does not expect the DEA to stop its actions without a "clear directive" from Congress.
"If it turns out the DEA is only taking these actions in Massachusetts, that would trouble me greatly," he said.
The measure has yet to be voted on in the Senate, but Senator Edward J. Markey said that he also is troubled by the reported DEA actions.
"The federal government should work with Massachusetts state officials and respect the will of the people of the Commonwealth," he said.
Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com or on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Shelley Murphy can be reached at Shelley.Murphy@globe.com or on Twitter @Shelleymurph.