ACLU sues over new RI medical marijuana policy
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced Tuesday that it is suing the state’s health department over a decision to no longer accept medical marijuana applications signed by nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.
The department decided in August to require all patients seeking medical marijuana to submit an application signed by a physician certifying that the patient has been diagnosed with a debilitating medical condition. Previously the state accepted applications signed by nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.
The change was made without legislative approval or a public hearing, according to volunteer ACLU attorney John Dineen.
The Department of Health adopted the new policy following a legal analysis of the state’s medical marijuana law, according to agency spokeswoman Dara Chadwick. Chadwick said the department would not comment on the lawsuit’s specifics.
More than 6,000 people are enrolled in Rhode Island’s medical marijuana program, which allows patients to obtain marijuana if they have been diagnosed with certain conditions including glaucoma, AIDS, chronic pain, seizures and multiple sclerosis.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws. Most do not approve patient applications signed by a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner, according to JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Leppanen said that by reducing the number of medical professionals who can sign applications Rhode Island is making it harder for patients to get the medicine they need. She estimated that about 20 percent of patients submit applications signed by a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner.
‘‘What the health department has done is put up another barrier, basically pulling the rug out from under the patients,’’ Leppanen said.
Other plaintiffs in the case include the Rhode Island Academy of Physician Assistants and a patient, Peter Nunes of Bristol.
Nunes said his doctor told him his chronic neck and back pain made him a ‘‘prime candidate’’ for medical marijuana but declined to sign a patient application. A second doctor also declined before Nunes got a signature from a nurse practitioner. Nunes wants to use marijuana to decrease the amount of painkillers he must take.
Yet Nunes’ application was denied last month even though he submitted his application in June — two months before the policy change was made.
‘‘I was frustrated,’’ Nunes said. ‘‘I would have followed their rules. But they changed it without notification.’’