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Tallahassee doctor fights state after medical marijuana sting operation

FILE PHOTO: Medical marijuana
FILE PHOTO: Medical marijuana((Source: KSLA))
Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 10:55 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (NSF) - A physician who orders medical marijuana for patients is accusing state health officials of breaking the law to create fake records in a sting operation involving an investigator falsely posing as a military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Joseph Dorn, who has practiced in Florida for nearly three decades, risks losing his medical license after the Department of Health filed a complaint alleging the Tallahassee-based physician violated medical marijuana laws when ordering cannabis for “Patient O.G. " and “Patient B.D.,” two undercover investigators with the state agency.

“Patient O.G.,” identified in administrative court records as investigator Ben Lanier, visited the doctor in 2018 seeking authorization as a medical marijuana patient.

According to a complaint filed in 2019, Lanier provided a “handwritten medical record” showing he had been diagnosed with PTSD by the military. Records in the administrative complaint also show that Lanier told Dorn he had anxiety after serving in Afghanistan, where the doctor’s son served. Lanier also showed Dorn a driver’s license with his fake name.

But Dorn’s lawyers argue that the health department investigators lacked law-enforcement powers and that state health officials broke federal law by forging military documents. Agency officials also broke state law by having the undercover agent pretend to have a medical condition that would have qualified him as a legitimate medical marijuana patient, Dorn lawyer Ryan Andrews contends.

“The fact that they are so brazen to just make up and lie about employees serving in the military, it’s just even more distasteful given that the governor served overseas for the country as well. … It’s just another layer of shame,” Andrews said, adding health officials preyed on Dr. Dorn, “whose son is in the military. It’s disrespectful to the governor, who served overseas and put his life at risk, too.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose administration includes the state health department, is a U.S. Navy veteran whose service included stints in Guantánamo and Iraq.

Andrews also accuses current and former Department of Health employees --- including Courtney Coppola, a former director of the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use who now serves as a deputy chief of staff for DeSantis --- of having “participated in a conspiracy to defraud” Dorn by forging and falsifying federal documents.

Andrews is threatening to file lawsuits against Coppola and other people involved in the investigation, including Chris Ferguson, the health department’s former chief of investigative services who has replaced Coppola as the state’s marijuana czar.

The health department complaint against Dorn accused the physician of violating state laws in a number of ways, such as by failing to conduct physical examinations of the undercover agents. The complaint also alleged Dorn failed to conduct full assessments of their medical histories; failed to properly diagnose the men with at least one qualifying medical condition; failed to adequately determine that the patients’ medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the potential health risks; and failed to review their controlled-drug prescription histories in a statewide database.

Health officials also accused Dorn of making “deceptive, untrue, or fraudulent representations in or related to the practice of medicine” by including false representations in the men’s patient records “to purportedly justify entering a physician certification” for medical marijuana.

During a hearing in Dorn’s case, Department of Health chief legal counsel Kristen Summers acknowledged that Lanier’s records weren’t genuine.

“We know that the document was fake. It was not a real medical record. That is the point we were trying to prove. Can we bring in insufficient evidence and wave a piece of paper around and say, ‘Dr. Dorn, can we have medical marijuana?’ and whether Dr. Dorn would accept that fraudulent piece of paper that was not real or not based on a real patient and give that person medical marijuana or not,” Summers told Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins on Sept. 16.

But Andrews pressed Summers to specify “if there is a rule or a statute” that allows the health department to forge documents for investigations.

“It’s our responsibility to ensure public safety,” she told Watkins. “We have pretty wide statutory guidance to be able to conduct investigations the way we see fit. There aren’t a lot of delineations, other than the fact that we’re allowed to investigate. That’s what the Legislature said, we shall be able to investigate.”

Florida law makes it a misdemeanor if a person “fraudulently represents that he or she has a qualifying medical condition to a qualified physician for the purpose of being issued a physician certification” for medical marijuana. Physicians also commit a misdemeanor if they authorize medical marijuana use for a patient “without a reasonable belief that the patient is suffering from a qualifying medical condition.”

Coppola, as the head of the Office of Medical Marijuana Use, and Department of Health General Counsel Louise St. Laurent were directly involved in the Dorn investigation. The women visited Dorn’s office, and Coppola took photographs, according to testimony in the case.

Dorn was targeted, in part, because he previously worked as medical director for Surterra, one of the state’s medical marijuana operators. State law bans doctors who are employed by medical marijuana operators from ordering cannabis treatments for patients.

Summers said Dorn “terminated his relationship” with Surterra shortly before the doctor opened Medical Marijuana Treatment Clinics of Florida. The issue is not part of the complaint, she said.

Health officials also accused Dorn of “abusing his authorization as a qualifying physician” by ordering medical marijuana for too many patients over a one-year period. Between February 2017 and January 2018, Dorn issued medical marijuana orders for 3,292 new patients, the complaint said.

But Andrews maintains that another doctor ordered marijuana for more than 14,000 patients during the same period but was not the subject of a complaint.

Watkins is slated to hold a final hearing on the complaint against Dorn next month.

Andrews told The News Service of Florida that the state agency’s use of phony records and undercover agents who faked medical conditions could have a chilling effect on other medical marijuana doctors.

“The DOH’s unlawful actions in this investigation will have the effect of changing the way physicians order medical marijuana for patients, because now the Department of Health has put in a play that anybody who comes into your office could be coming in with federal medical records that we told our staff to forge. So now they have to be on guard,” he said.

Copyright 2021 News Service of Florida. All rights reserved.