Pubdate: Fri, 25 Aug 2017
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2017 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Dan Adams


An arm of the White House's anti-drug office has asked Massachusetts
and several other states where medical marijuana is legal to turn over
information about their registered patients, triggering a debate over
privacy rights and whether state officials should cooperate with a
federal administration that appears hostile to the drug.

Dale Quigley, deputy coordinator of the National Marijuana Initiative,
or NMI, has asked Massachusetts health officials for demographic data
on the age, gender, and medical condition of the state's approximately
40,000 registered medical marijuana patients. Quigley is a former
police officer in Colorado with a long history of speaking out against

The NMI is part of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area
initiative, a law enforcement effort directed by the White House's
Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In an interview, Quigley said the data are for a routine research
project, in which he is looking for any correlation between how
strictly states regulate medical cannabis and the rates of marijuana
use among different age groups within the general public in those states.

He insisted he is not seeking to identify individual patients, and
that his work doesn't signify imminent changes to the current
hands-off approach by the federal government to state-regulated
medical marijuana operations.

"There are no black helicopters warming up in the bullpen," Quigley
said. "I have no idea where this is going to take us yet."

But medical marijuana proponents said the mere notion that President
Trump's administration is nosing around medical marijuana could scare
off patients, sending them to the black market for cannabis instead of
registering with state-run systems that ensure medicines are tested
for potency and safety. Patients did not consent to their data being
used by the National Marijuana Initiative, they said, and can't be
sure their personal information was kept private.

"We must protect patients' anonymity and comfort in obtaining medical
cannabis without feeling like they're being watched," said Beth
Collins, senior director of government relations and external affairs
at Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy
group. "They'll see this story and say, 'Oh, the feds are going to
know I'm a patient,' and stay away. It's an access issue."

Some of the 29 states with medical marijuana programs already publish
the data sought by Quigley on their websites. Massachusetts does not,
but the state Department of Public Health, which regulates medical
cannabis here, has provided Quigley with data on the gender and ages
of its registered patients, saying that information is a public record.

That information does not identify patients by name. However, the
department is still evaluating whether it should respond to Quigley's
request for a list of the medical conditions that prompted patients to
register with the state. Some patients have rare ailments, and DPH
officials are concerned it may be possible to use that information to
identify them.

"Protecting patient privacy is a major consideration of our continued
review," a DPH spokesman said in a prepared statement.

Massachusetts law prohibits DPH from disclosing identifying
information about registered patients in most cases. To comply, and to
guard against the use of sophisticated software that can correlate
seemingly anonymous information with real-world identities, officials
said they "blurred" some of the numbers provided to Quigley. For
example, if there were only a handful medical marijuana patients of a
given age - say, one or two 90-year-olds - DPH's spreadsheet doesn't
include the precise number but instead indicates only that were fewer
than seven 90-year-olds.

The leaders of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which
sponsored the 2012 ballot measure legalizing medical cannabis in the
state, said changes over time to the state's registration process mean
the data sought by Quigley will be incomplete.

"There is potential for incredible studies by real medical
researchers," said Nichole Snow, the group's executive director, "but
we want that data to be credible and accurate and also confidential. I
think the patients of Massachusetts would feel this is an intrusion."

Regulators in several other states where medical marijuana is legal,
including Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont, said they were
evaluating which data they could legally provide to Quigley. Officials
in Maine noted that their registry is voluntary, and said the state
doesn't collect demographic data from patients who sign up.

For now, the US Department of Justice is operating under congressional
restraints and an Obama-era edict that essentially prohibit federal
law enforcement actions against state-regulated medical marijuana
operations that don't contribute to interstate trafficking or public
health and safety problems.

But Trump's attorney general, former US senator Jeff Sessions, is a
longtime antidrug hardliner who said last year that "good people don't
smoke marijuana." He has sought to remove constraints on marijuana
investigations, and he recently sparred with governors of
legal-marijuana states who said he used flawed and outdated data to
argue that legalization has caused a spike in emergency room
admissions and drug trafficking.

The agency that Quigley works for reports directly to the White House,
not to Sessions. But advocates said there is good reason to be
suspicious anyway. They worry the data Quigley is collecting could
eventually be used - or misconstrued - by US officials to help build a
case for a crackdown. And they also questioned his qualifications and
motivations, noting that his expertise is in law enforcement, not
research or statistics, and that he has given talks around the country
decrying marijuana legalization.

"He's obviously biased," Collins said, "and if research isn't done
right, it can show whatever he wants it to show. Why isn't a
researcher doing it? That's a red flag to me right away."

Moreover, various state medical marijuana programs have existed for
different lengths of time, and collect different levels and types of
data. That would make it difficult for even a sophisticated researcher
to reconcile the numbers and produce a valid, "apples-to-apples" comparison.

Quigley himself acknowledged that he is skeptical of loosening
prohibitions on marijuana.

"I've not seen much good come out of legalization," he said. "When you
make something that has no sense of risk or harm attached to it widely
available, use rates are going to go up."
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