For members of the medical marijuana industry, Jeffrey Sweetin, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Denver field office, is a lightning rod thanks to comments he made after the DEA raided the home of Highlands Ranch's Chris Bartkowicz, who showed off his grow to 9News.
Recently, however, Sweetin has attempted to dial down the rhetoric, first via an extended interview with Westword's Joel Warner, and more recently by way of a meeting with the Denver Post editorial board.
But he remains critical of MMJ advocate Rob Corry, who name-checked the DEA in a recent blog about SB-109, a bill intended to clarify the relationship between doctors and medical-marijuana patients.
Here's the beef -- and the reason Sweetin feels Corry is more interested in pot than patients.
In the aforementioned interview, published on March 31, Corry talked about objections he had to SB-109 -- particularly a section defining a doctor "in good standing." That passage reads in part:
THE PHYSICIAN HAS A VALID AND UNRESTRICTED UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE FEDERAL DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES REGISTRATION.
About this reference, Corry said, "I see the redefinition of what is a doctor in good standing as a major problem. It essentially gives the DEA veto power over whether a doctor can issue advice to patients or not. And the DEA has demonstrated extreme hostility toward Colorado voters. We should not give them any foothold whatsoever in medical marijuana."
Sweetin's response? According to him, "Either Mr. Corry completely misunderstands federal authority, which I tend to believe is not the case, or he's looking for an enemy in this issue.
"What I mean by that is, the DEA has nothing to do with the state's medical marijuana regulation -- their law, their constitutional change. His statement about 'why would we give the DEA more authority:' The state cannot give or take away federal authority. So what's really at issue here is that, I suspect, the people involved in the medical marijuana industry don't truly want this to be seen as a medical issue.
"Whether Rob Corry wants DEA to have more or less authority doesn't really matter. We get our authority from federal law. Our authority doesn't change based on state amendments or state law."
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In regard to the SB-109 passage above, DEA spokesman Mike Turner points out that in order for physicians to prescribe items listed in the Controlled Substances Act -- like, for instance, Oxycontin -- during the normal course of their practice, they must have a DEA registration number. But a doctor wouldn't technically need a DEA number to recommend marijuana, because the federal government has not determined that the substance has an approved medical value.
"There's still a lot of confusion about that," Sweetin concedes. "Only the people closest to the issue truly understand that while the ability and control of what DEA registrants prescribe is regulated by the DEA, a recommendation for marijuana has nothing to do with their DEA number."
So why did the authors of SB-109, sponsored by Senator Chris Romer, bother mentioning the DEA number in this context? Sweetin can only speculate.
"I suspect what they're trying to do is rein in all these chiropractors and people who have no ability to prescribe any drug, but can recommend marijuana," he allows. "I suspect they're saying, 'Let's only let people recommend marijuana who have the authority to prescribe other drugs.'"
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In Sweetin's view, the reaction to SB-109 by Corry and dispensary operators "will be really telling. Remember, this amendment was passed by the voters on the assumption that this was medicine doctors needed to give to their patients in certain instances. But now what we're getting is a push-back against any attempt to define that doctor-patient relationship -- and that's kind of what this legislation is. A medical doctor who can prescribe medication is now going to be in a relationship with patients. Why would they object to that? That's what's required for prescriptions of schedules two through five. So any objection to that suggests to me that this is not really a medical issue. It's about widespread legalization and access to marijuana."
Requiring that a doctor who recommends medical marijuana also has a DEA registration number "puts it back into the legitimate medical community," Sweetin believes. "What happens is, you have to go and get that recommendation from a doctor who can just as easily prescribe any other medication. And based on the statistics that came out of Colorado last summer" -- the ones establishing that the vast majority of MMJ recommendations were written by a small handful of physicians -- "I believe that will drastically decrease the number of doctors willing to recommend marijuana.
"Say you have a doctor who's lost his DEA registration," he continues. "He's not allowed to prescribe any controlled substances, but he's still a doctor who can write medical marijuana recommendations. The state is saying, 'If this is really medicine, why wouldn't you require a doctor who prescribes other medication to be the one who does that?' And the fact that [MMJ advocates] object shows what they're really up to.
"If Rob Corry believes this is medicine, why would he vehemently object? But it seems they object to any attempt to make this a legitimate, recommended medicine. And that, to me, is a little bit odd."