PORTLAND, Oregon – Dr. Phillip Leveque looks more like a Norman Rockwell country doctor than a man embroiled in drug controversy.
The jovial 78-year-old osteopath has approved more than 900 requests to grow medical marijuana, which is allowed by the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act of 1999. The law allows patients suffering from severe pain, seizures and other chronic conditions to grow their own marijuana with physician approval.
Roughly 2,200 Oregonians have obtained permits to grow marijuana since the law went into effect. And more than 40 percent of those patients were approved by a single physician: Dr. Leveque.
"I have signed over 900 [applications to grow marijuana] now," Dr. Leveque said. "The next person signed 71."
With his prolific approvals, Dr. Leveque has developed a reputation as the "go to" physician for patients seeking medical marijuana. He receives referrals from advocacy groups and even hosts his own TV show on public access cable.
But Dr. Leveque's high profile has drawn sharp criticism from anti-drug advocates.
"The biggest concern about what Dr. Leveque might be doing is over-prescribing," said David Westbrook, who directs a help line for the drug abuse prevention group Oregon Partnership.
Such concerns have prompted the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners to investigate Dr. Leveque's practice.
"I deny vociferously that I am lenient," said Dr. Leveque. "I am going exactly by the law of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act."
Dr. Leveque said the problem is not that he is too indulgent, but that other doctors are too strict. Less than 550 of the state's 7,000 doctors have signed any patient application forms to grow medical marijuana.
"They're afraid of George W. Bush and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]," Dr. Leveque said. "They're also afraid of the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners in this particular state."
But the doctor's critics say there are plenty of good reasons to be cautious. Because patients grow their own marijuana, the drug can vary in potency and there is no recommended dosage. The thought of doctors encouraging cancer patients to smoke creates an ironic twist.
"You see more tar coming from a joint or marijuana cigarette than you do from a tobacco cigarette. So, this leads to bronchitis, asthma, and there are carcinogens in it as well," Westbrook said.
Dr. Leveque insists he is following the mandate of Oregon's voters, who approved the Medical Marijuana Act in a 1998 referendum. But critics say public opinion and medical expertise do not always go hand in hand.
Ultimately, Dr. Leveque's peers will decide whether what he is doing is public service or reefer madness.