Health Care

Most doctors won’t OK Missouri medical marijuana requests. But these KC clinics will

Darby Cook is about to open her Missouri Cannabis Clinic because she thinks suffering Kansas Citians should get to use medical marijuana — as her mother did.

A decade ago, her mom had tried everything else to quell the pain of fibromyalgia. Michigan had just legalized medical marijuana, so the family moved there. First step: apply for a medical marijuana card.

“We thought it would be a pretty straightforward process for my mom to get her card,” Cook said. “She had mountains of medical records proving she had this condition, but a lot of the doctors we went to didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”

Ultimately, her mom had to drive more than an hour away to see a doctor who would sign off on her application.

“What my mom had to do is go to a special clinic, kind of like what we’re doing here,” Cook said.

Missouri is preparing to release application forms on Tuesday for patients hoping to use medical marijuana under the state’s new law enacted by voters in November. But because patients need doctors to certify those forms, clinics like Cook’s are popping up here, much as they have in other states that legalized medical marijuana.

The clinics carry some controversy, as physician groups worry that they may reflect poorly on the profession.

“The important thing for me is that it doesn’t turn into Venice Beach (in California), where you have storefronts that say ‘Come in and get your marijuana card,’” Jeff Howell, the head of government affairs for the Missouri State Medical Association, said shortly after the law passed.

Most doctors don’t consider marijuana to be medicine, at least not in its raw plant form. Unlike drugs that have gone through the Food and Drug Administration approval process, cannabis-based products legalized under Missouri Amendment 2 won’t be sold in standard dosages or purities, or be subject to testing to prove safety and effectiveness. All major physician groups in Missouri, including the Kansas City Medical Society, opposed the amendment.

The new state form asks doctors to certify that patients have one of many qualifying medical conditions laid out in the amendment, including cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, any terminal illness and anything that causes chronic pain.

Any licensed doctor can sign off on the certifications, but in other states, like Michigan, many patients have ended up getting them signed at specialty clinics because their regular doctors didn’t feel comfortable doing so, or worked for large health systems that didn’t allow them to.

Clinics in Missouri are beginning to market medial marijuana evaluations. This sign, posted in the median along Ward Parkway last month, advertises the phone number for the Missouri Cannabis Clinic in Raytown. Leah Becerra

At this point there are some clinics like that in Missouri — featuring green lettering and marijuana leaf illustrations to get their point across, even if they’re not quite as explicit as on Venice Beach. But there aren’t a lot of them., a directory that “cannabis-friendly” physicians pay to be listed in, included only 13 places for the whole state of Missouri as of Monday.

In the Kansas City area there’s The Green Clinic in the River Market; a chain called Green Health Docs on the Country Club Plaza that also operates in Ohio and Maryland; Green Sage Doctors in Independence; and Bluebird Wellness Center in Lee’s Summit. Three individual doctors in Kansas City and Lee’s Summit are also listed.

All are charging about $200 to $300 for the evaluations, which are not covered by insurance.

Cook’s Missouri Cannabis Clinic in Raytown will not open until this weekend.

A Tampa Bay Times investigation last year found that state’s medical marijuana program had “turned into a magnet for physicians with troubled pasts,” including hundreds with blemishes on their medical licenses. Some had moved in from other states.

There’s little evidence so far that that’s happening in Missouri.

The Missouri Board of Registration for the Healing Arts received about 1,200 applications for new physician licenses through May 15. That was about 120 more than during the same period the year before, but application numbers had been rising by about 50 to 100 every year since 2015, well before Amendment 2 passed.

The Kansas City-area physicians listed on have generally been practicing in the state for a decade or more without any trouble, according to state records.

But Michael Poppa, the doctor at Cook’s clinic who received his Missouri license in 1978, was disciplined by the state medical board early in his career. He surrendered his license voluntarily in 1985 following an investigation by the board for improper amphetamine dispensing. He got it back on a probationary basis the following year, and his probation was lifted in 1988.

“That would have been 30-some years ago,” Poppa said. “I’ve had no issues since practicing medicine.”

Poppa treated Cook’s father when he lived in Kansas City.

Cook was born in Kansas City, and her family moved to Indiana when she was young. After they moved to Michigan, she said, both her parents ended up benefiting from medical marijuana. Her mom used it for her fibromyalgia, and her dad for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Last year they opened a dispensary, The Happiest Camper (as in THC), on the Indiana border.

Cook just finished a two-year stint with Teach for America as a fourth-grade science teacher at University Academy. She’s launching her clinic in Raytown with help from her partner, Jana Lappin, who just graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy.

The office was still being finished last week. About half the walls were still painted light blue, but they will eventually all be green. One wall included two ironic posters referring to marijuana as the “Devil’s Harvest” and the “Weed With Roots in Hell” flanking a more serious print Cook had made, touting the plant’s ability to treat depression and certain seizure disorders.

Cook said the office will be open only on weekends to accommodate workers’ schedules, and the first weekend is almost fully booked. She said she expects there will be enough business for the new cannabis clinics, even after the initial rush.

“I think there are enough patients out there in Missouri to keep us really busy,” Cook said, “simply because their primary care physicians don’t feel comfortable writing the medication, or by contract they can’t do it, or they’re misinformed about the drug and they won’t do it.”

Even once they qualify, it will be months before patients, who must be Missouri residents, can get their hands on legal medical marijuana.

Though forms for doctors to sign will be available to patients starting Tuesday at (click on “Licensing & Regulations”), the state won’t start accepting applications for medical marijuana cards until July 4.

As for businesses, the state won’t start vetting applications for licenses to make or sell medical marijuana products until August, and the first dispensaries probably won’t open until December at the earliest. But qualified patients can also apply to grow up to six plants of their own.

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Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.