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Patient Privacy Should Be at the Heart of Medical Marijuana Regulations

Posted: 01/27/11 10:35 AM ET

This past November, Arizona became the 15th state to adopt a medical marijuana law. Even with medical marijuana laws in nearly a third of the country, ever-increasing scientific evidence of efficacy, and popular American support at over 80 percent, patients' rights are still threatened. As long as medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law, patients everywhere are vulnerable. In fact, the discordance between federal and state laws makes it especially important to protect the privacy of patients.

This week, the Colorado Department of Revenue Licensing Authority will be hearing public comment on proposed regulations addressing recent amendments to the state's medical marijuana law. Leading up to these hearings, members of our organization in CO have reached out to us with legitimate concerns about their privacy as patients. Unfortunately, in the rush to regulate Colorado's burgeoning medical marijuana distribution system, it is the privacy rights of patients in particular that have so far been either ignored or disregarded. While there are many issues that the Department of Revenue must deal with, patient privacy should be at the forefront.

For example, it should be of concern to the State of Colorado that law enforcement will have real-time access to surveillance systems that will monitor literally thousands of patients and their purchase of medicine, activity that is still illegal under federal law. Civil libertarians and patient advocates are also concerned that the proposed regulations allow an alarmingly large number of people, including court clerks and their staff, to access records that should be private and protected at minimum by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), if not by state law.

Just in case there was any question about the vulnerability of patient records, one need only look to the State of Michigan, where President Obama's Justice Department has issued subpoenas for several registered medical marijuana patients. So far, the Michigan Department of Community Health has refused to turn over the records, but the Justice Department recently took the case into federal court. As recently as 2007, under President G.W. Bush, the Justice Department similarly subpoenaed the records of 17 registered patients in the Oregon. Although the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program successfully quashed the subpoenas, it's unclear whether such resistance can be sustained across the country.

Colorado voters were very specific about penalties for the unauthorized disclosure of patient information. Ballot Measure 20, passed in 2000, clearly states that "any person...who releases or makes public any confidential record or any confidential information...without the written authorization of the marijuana registry patient commits a class 1 misdemeanor." Patient privacy is an important ethical and public health issue of our time, regardless of whether patients benefits from the use of medical marijuana. By the same token, we must not lose sight of upholding those rights when the patients involved use marijuana as their medicine.

Steph Sherer is a medical marijuana patient and Executive Director of Americans for Safe Access. Americans for Safe Access is the largest national member-based organization of patients, medical professionals, scientists and concerned citizens promoting safe and legal access to cannabis for therapeutic use and research.