Medical marijuana sting: Brian Vicente criticizes Aurora PD for targeting doctor

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Aurora police chief Dan Oates defends a sting operation that led to the arrest of a doctor accused of writing medical marijuana recommendations without examinations.

But Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente, who's criticized law enforcement's approach to medical marijuana in the past, questions the department's actions, which he sees in the context of Aurora's reputation for MMJ industry unfriendliness.

In this space yesterday, Oates described the investigation into the activities of Dr. Manuel Aquino-Villaman. He said that numerous sources who came into contact with APD personnel talked about receiving medical-marijuana recommendations from the doctor "under circumstances we doubted." So on two occasions, undercover officers visited Aquino-Villaman. Both times, Oates said, the doctor wrote them recommendations without examining them -- actions for which he's been charged with attempting to influence a public servant and with conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

Aurora is among the largest communities in Colorado to have instituted a moratorium on medical marijuana businesses, and its city council has voted to put a dispensary ban on the November ballot. As such, MMJ boosters tend to think of the city as hostile to their interests.

Nonetheless, Oates insisted that he's "not interested in the politics of this." Likewise, he rejected the theory that Aquino-Villaman's arrest signals open season on Aurora doctors who might recommend medical marijuana to patients. "I see this as an isolated incident of an allegation that a doctor was committing criminal acts, and we investigated it," he said.

Vicente's take?

"I would say the town government is hostile to sick medical marijuana patients," he maintains. "They have been for years. And I think they're now using the police to further discriminate against those patients by running undercover sting operations on doctors who may or may not be writing recommendations inappropriately. I think it shows the level of their distaste for patients."

Not that Vicente believes doctors who write MMJ recommendations need do nothing more than chat with individuals who ask for weed.

"Doctors need to establish a bona fide relationship with patients," he stresses. "The law's clear on that. They need to use their training and judgment to verify this person's ailment is real."

With that in mind, he declines to weigh in on the specifics of Aquino-Villaman's case. "I'm not saying what this doctor did was appropriate or inappropriate. The facts aren't all there. But I can say this is a giant waste of taxpayer dollars."

Although the initial release from the APD about the doctor's bust noted that the investigation stretched over a five-month period (see it below), Oates said the actual amount the sting cost was quite modest. Even so, Vicente feels the money could have been better spent.

"I have to imagine that there are more important crimes the people of Aurora are suffering from than a doctor writing a recommendation to a police officer who's lied about having a medical problem to derive sympathy from the doctor," he allows. "Essentially, they set him up, and that strikes me as a waste of resources.

"I just think it's amazing that resources were not devoted to violent crime or stopping the spread of addictive or dangerous drugs and are instead focused on marijuana, which is by all scientific measures a very benign substance for adults."

SB 109, the bill clarifying the relationship between doctors and MMJ patients, was recently signed into law by Governor Bill Ritter. But Vicente sees a number of areas that need to be tweaked.

"I think 109 overreached in terms of allowing the government to sort of come between doctors and patients," he says. "And I'm hoping the legislature will realize that using patient dollars to prosecute doctors that are acting inappropriately is not what voters had in mind when passing a medical marijuana law."

As Vicente points out, "when prosecutions occur, they're paid for by patients out of their $90 annual licensing fees." When it comes to Aquino-Villaman, "I imagine the money for that sting is coming directly from the taxpayers of Aurora. But the money for the actual prosecution would come from patient dollars."

Despite Oates' insistence that the operation was an "isolated incident," Vicente suspects "there's a good chance we'll be seeing more of these investigations and arrests. I think that shows how out of touch law-enforcement officers are in Aurora, and I think the people of Aurora should be outraged that the police aren't using their resources to stop real crime."

Page down to read the APD release on the doctor's arrest:

Arrest Made in Connection with Medical Marijuana Investigation

Aurora, Colo. -- Aurora Police arrested a doctor on Thursday, July 8, 2010, in connection with a five-month investigation by undercover officers into illegal marijuana distribution.

The doctor came to the attention of the Aurora Police when sources indicated that he may be writing false "medical marijuana" recommendations to persons who were not ill. He has been charged with Attempting to Influence a Public Servant and with Conspiracy to Distribute Marijuana.

Narcotics Unit investigators arrested 69-year-old Manuel Aquino-Villaman, who is licensed in Colorado to practice medicine, after he signed a Medical Marijuana Physician's Certification for two individual "patients," clearing the way for each to legally purchase marijuana. Aquino-Villaman was arrested Thursday afternoon at his medical practice, which is located at 3033 S. Parker Road in Aurora. He was transported to the Aurora Detention Center and was held for $6,000 bond.

"This is an unfortunate case of a doctor deliberately using the façade of 'medical marijuana' to help distribute large amounts of marijuana illegally," said Police Chief Daniel J. Oates.

Aurora narcotics officers became aware of Dr. Aquino-Villaman when they began encountering a disproportionate number of "patients" in possession of recommendations by the doctor claiming they had a need for medical marijuana. Undercover officers visited the doctor, who gave each of them a recommendation for marijuana without physically examining the officers and without any evidence that the undercovers were ill in any way.

The doctor signed a Medical Marijuana Physician's Certification that stated that each undercover officer was complaining of severe pain and was therefore eligible under Colorado law to legally obtain medical marijuana. The doctor spent just minutes with the officers and charged them $125 for the consultation and the medical marijuana recommendation.

The Aurora Police Department has worked closely with the Arapahoe County District Attorney's office on this case. Dr. Aquino-Villaman is currently free on bond.

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