Physician faces felony charges for certifying medical marijuana patients
The 76-year-old looks like an old-fashioned country doctor. He is gray-haired, unassuming and kind, about as far as you could imagine from the image that comes to mind of someone who is the target of an undercover drug probe.
But police and prosecutors would have you look at this man differently. They’ve brought felony charges and say he rubber-stamped medical marijuana certifications for profit.
The case unfolding against Dr. Edward Lamar Harwell, M.D., could eventually have a jury deciding whether he spent enough time examining three undercover cops posing as patients before he signed off on permission for them to use medical marijuana.
Harwell, of Reed City, is charged with criminal conspiracy for allegedly certifying medical marijuana patients without a “bona fide doctor-patient relationship” and with putting false information in medical records. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison.
Of note, Harwell spent most of his career as a radiologist with special training in nuclear medicine. Typically specialists in these fields don’t conduct the kind of primary care exams that are offered by family practitioners or internists.
Harwell’s preliminary exam began March 21 in Cadillac and is set to resume April 4, when District Judge David Hogg is expected to decide whether police and prosecutors can bring their case against Harwell to trial.
It is just the latest trouble for the doctor, who, depending on where you look, is either depicted as a scofflaw opportunist who ran a medical marijuana certification mill, or he is a compassionate and principled doctor who decided several years ago that marijuana is an effective treatment for pain.
UNDERCOVER STING LAUNCHED
Two witnesses testified on the first day of Harwell’s hearing and at least two more are expected to testify when the hearing resumes this Thursday.
A detective from the Traverse Narcotics Team testified that police learned about Harwell’s Cadillac practice, the Triple M Clinic, in 2010, and they eventually decided to send undercover officers to pose as pain-sufferers seeking medical marijuana cards.
One of those officers, a Leelanau County Sheriff’s deputy who went by the alias “Cody Michael Boyd,” appeared in court in a black suit and red shirt with shoulder-length hair, a soul patch, and a long petit goatee.
He testified about how he wore a wire that could record audio, and carried a key chain to record video. The officer said he saw the receptionist and announced he was a new patient.
THE DOCTOR’S VISIT
Here is what happened when “Cody Boyd” visited the doctor: Like any doctor visit, the receptionist gave him a stack of forms to fill out. He was called to the exam room before he finished them.
The officer said the exam took around five minutes.
It was captured on the secret audio-video recording, which was played in court, but the recording cut off before the end of the exam, apparently due to technical problems.
“I handed (the paperwork) to the doctor. I apologized. I stated that I did not get it done,” he said.
Harwell took the forms and he continued to fill them out, apparently based on questions the undercover officer had already answered on the form and from what he told the doctor during the exam.
“He asked me what kind of symptoms I had and I said I had mostly neck pain, which shot into my shoulder,” the officer testified.
“He did ask me to turn my head to the left and to the right and he asked me if I had any discomfort.”
NO MEDICAL HISTORY
The officer didn’t bring his medical history with him to the clinic, but he summarized his history on the form.
He described knee problems he’d suffered long ago and said he had to have several knee surgeries.
The doctor examined the officer’s knees.
He pressed his fingers around them, to see if that caused any discomfort or pain. He checked the officer’s reflexes with a plexor.
Harwell also checked his blood pressure, which was found to be slightly high.
“You’re blood pressure’s a little up there,” the doctor said.
What the officer told the doctor during the visit was a cocktail of truth and lies: he testified that he wrote on the form that he suffered from anxiety, which he said was not true. He said he had suffered knee problems, which was the truth. He said he had severe neck pain, which was a lie.
He could not fake his blood pressure, though.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
Harwell handed the officer a card. He’d written down his blood pressure reading. The card also included the doctor’s telephone number.
He told the officer to check his blood pressure at a pharmacy in a few days and if it was still high, to call him.
Harwell’s attorney, Michael Cronkright, said this is just one detail that shows the true nature of Dr. Harwell’s work -- he is a man who cares deeply about his patients.
Beyond that, Cronkright said, there is no question that the exams performed by his client constituted “bona fide doctor patient” relationships.
“It’s somewhat outrageous for us to be going after a medical doctor who has decades of experience,” Cronkright said. When does a doctor-patient relationship become bona fide?
“It’s an extremely interesting and controversial question,” he said. “But I will tell you that I don’t think it’s a whole lot different than from when a lawyer-client relationship becomes bona fide.” And that, he said, can happen once a lawyer gives a person some advice.
The police and prosecutor in this case didn’t return messages seeking comment.
They might point to a Michigan Attorney General’s complaint issued last year which alleges that Harwell failed to keep proper records and that he didn’t properly evaluate patients who he charged fees -- $150 for firsttime patients and $100 for renewals -- for medical marijuana certifications.
The complaint described medical marijuana seminars Harwell hosted at hotels around Michigan.
The complaint describes a television news report from December, 2010, when a reporter from Channel 31 in Kalamazoo sent an undercover patient into one of Harwell’s hotel-based clinics. The stunt led to a report entitled “Smokescreen,” which described how the undercover patient received certification after a short conversation and the exchange of some cash.
Also, the complaint alleges that during the course of his medical marijuana practice, Harwell saw two patients, who are not named, who suffered from high blood pressure when they saw Harwell. The complaint alleges that the condition was not addressed by the doctor.
Cronkright said there is no testimony or evidence about those patients. He said the testimony from the undercover TNT officer demonstrates the kind of care Harwell takes with his patients.
BONA FIDE BELIEVER
Harwell said he could not talk about his case when he was approached during a break in his recent hearing in Cadillac. He apologized and said he had been told by Cronkright not to talk to the media.
But he was profiled in 2010 by the website annarbor.com. There he explained how he became committed to medical marijuana.
He told the reporter that he used to be opposed to marijuana but then he attended a conference that changed his mind and convinced him marijuana was an effective treatment for pain.
“It’s the only drug you can’t overdose on, it’s not toxic and it’s not addicting,” he told annarbor.com.
He described to the reporter his process for approving a certification: he would meet with a patient, discuss their symptoms, talk about their medical history, and decide whether they suffered from one of the medical conditions that enables people in Michigan access to marijuana since 2008.
He said he didn’t believe it required a full examination to certify someone for medical marijuana.
Harwell also told his annarbor.com profiler he was committed to certifying patients for medical marijuana, despite the risks brought on by uncertainties in the law, because he believed it was right.