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Office assistants gave SW forms to fill out, where he listed he was on cannabis and Depakote, a prescription drug for seizures and migraines. He said he was looking for a medical pot recommendation for his insomnia, uncontrollable rage, and shoulder pain from baseball. The teen wrote that his parents and brother had histories of mental health disorders and was a patient at Kaiser in Walnut Creek.
Assad asked SW how Depakote was working for his temper, anxiety, and insomnia. The teen said he didn't like it and that marijuana helped more. He was smoking it in the morning before school and in the evening before bed. Assad asked about the teen's shoulder pain but didn't examine the shoulder, or physically examine him, or conduct any other evaluation or tests. Instead, Assad said the teen had attention deficit disorder, prescribed cannabis, and told him to come back in a year to see how it was working. The teen later said the entire examination took ten minutes and he paid Assad $155.
When the parents found out about the recommendation, they complained to the California Medical Board. Cohen said the med board gets about a dozen pot doctor complaints each year, and they've disciplined exactly twelve since Prop. 216 took effect in 1997. They soon launched an investigation that determined Assad violated numerous rules for treating patients.
According to 2009 med board records, Assad didn't ask about SW's mental health issues, perform a physical, or take his vitals. He didn't even measure or weigh the teen before he listed SW's height and weight at six feet, 150 pounds. He didn't contact Kaiser for the teen's medical records because SW didn't want his parents to find out. But if Assad had gotten the records, he would have learned that the teen had been hospitalized for alcohol abuse. Assad later admitted to the board that he had underestimated the importance of the teen's medical records, and that he didn't follow his "routine" when examining him.
During Assad's revocation hearing, Dr. Barbara Neyhart of UC Davis Medical Center, a board-certified family practitioner, echoed board guidelines, which state that medical marijuana patients should be treated no differently than patients who come in asking for any other medicine. "There should be an appropriate history and an appropriate examination, followed by a discussion of therapeutic alternatives," the guidelines state.
Neyhart said in an interview that such by-the-books procedure is especially important when a patient comes in claiming to know what they need for an ailment. "I believe the concept behind Prop 215 was to make therapeutic cannabis available for patients who have chronic pain issues," she said, "not as a subterfuge for recreational users of the product."
Dr. Denney, the Sacramento family practitioner who later took over Assad's practice, testified on Assad's behalf, saying essentially that the doctor had loose procedures, but that Assad's recommendation of marijuana for SW's insomnia, anxiety, and ADD was appropriate. Denney, a founding member of the Cannabis Research Group, said recently in an interview that he intervened in the case to make sure that Assad, who was just an acquaintance of his, got a fair hearing. "No one would testify on Assad's behalf," Denney explained. "It can be distasteful and I didn't do it for Assad or for the movement, but rather a sense of duty to the system."
But the board ruled that Assad was grossly negligent and incompetent in his care of SW, and failed to maintain adequate and accurate medical records for the patient. The board lifted the stay of revocation it instituted in 2001, and revoked his certificate on November 23, 2009. After the hearing, Assad's lawyers — who declined to comment for this story — looked for potential NorCal Healthcare System Medical Clinic buyers. They found one in Assad's only defender, Dr. Denney. Assad himself is rumored to have gone back to Egypt.
Dr. Philip Denney looks like a congenial grandpa. He has a fluffy, white, clean beard, and his blue eyes sparkle behind his prescription glasses. During a recent interview at a downtown Oakland eatery, he wore a blue, short-sleeve, button-down shirt with a red tie and slacks, and carried with him a scratched, older-model Nokia cell phone. The five-dollar-a-plate restaurant and the six-pack of Anchor Steam he brought in indicate he's not getting rich off the pot practice he now runs.
Denney said he's just an old hippie trying to do what's right. He was born in Washington, DC and quit high school to join the Navy, where he jumped out of airplanes for fun and worked the skies in an anti-submarine patrol unit during Vietnam. His commander encouraged night school and when Denney finished a six-year stint in the Navy, he majored in zoology at Ohio University. When he did better than the pre-med students in a comparative anatomy, he applied to six medical schools and got into the University of Southern California, a move that would change his life.
He graduated from USC in 1976 and became a general practitioner. During his career, he has delivered more than 300 babies and has done rotations in busy emergency rooms and jail wards. While the rest of the medical field was reaping the profits of intense specialization in cities, Denney became a rural general practitioner, providing cradle-to-grave care in inland Northern California. He built his own house and raised a family. He got tired of patients missing payments, and bloody kids coming up his driveway for sutures, so did urgent care and occupational medicine in Sacramento.