When it comes to certifying patients for medical marijuana, nobody in Miami-Dade County does it as much as Dr. Jay Ellenby.
In a year period ending in September 2019, he has the highest number of certifications in the county with 3,751. That’s 75 percent more than the next-busiest doctor in the county.
Like many of the physicians statewide with the most marijuana certifications, his diagnoses often include post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain – two conditions experts say can be difficult to nail down when it comes to proving whether a patient is sick or just faking it.
For Ellenby, 96 percent of his certifications were for PTSD or chronic pain compared to a statewide average of 56 percent, according to a state report.
“What we notice is many of the high prescribers were using diagnoses that are difficult to objectively evaluate, such as PTSD in particular,” said Dr. Steven Rosenberg, a former chairman of the Florida Board of Medicine, who served on a committee investigating medical marijuana trends in the state.
Rosenberg says he’s concerned about the committee’s findings on medical marijuana certifications.
“Well, I’m afraid there are some physicians who are looking at their medical license to prescribe marijuana as a cash cow rather than actually practicing medicine,” Rosenberg said, noting nine percent of physicians in the program accounted for more than 60 percent of the certifications.
In an interview at the Wynwood Miracle Leaf offices, where the storefront window announces the presence of “marijuana doctor,” Ellenby said his motives are not monetary, but clinical.
As he wound down a five-decade career as a plastic surgeon, Ellenby said he began studying the medical effects of cannabis and became a true believer.
“I became fascinated by the various possibilities of significant benefits to basically almost all people,” he said.
The doctor said he does not grant certifications to just anyone who walks in, but it’s close.
“Very rarely. I would say less than about three percent,” he responded when asked how often he turns down potential patients seeking certifications that would allow them to buy up to a half ounce of smokable marijuana flower a week.
After we told Rosenberg that 96 percent of Ellenby’s certifications cited either PTSD or chronic pain, he said “that sounds a little abusive.”
Also surprised at that concentration in Ellenby’s certifications: Dr. Ellenby himself.
Asked how many of his patients he diagnose with those two conditions, Ellenby said “about half.”
After being told state records show it was 96 percent, he responded “seems unreasonable to me. It does.”
As for being No. 1 in Miami-Dade, Ellenby expressed some satisfaction noting “even one of the medical clinics gave me a dinner and an award one night.”
It is a booming business, with smokable marijuana selling for between $260 and $425 an ounce at local treatment centers.
Trulieve, the biggest in the state, sold more than 100 pounds a day at its 43 Florida locations in the first week of February, according to the state Department of Health.
State records show the largest share of patients – 36 percent – get access to medical marijuana after being diagnosed with chronic pain.
Asked how such pain can be objectively measured, Rosenberg said “that’s a good question and I don’t think there’s a good answer.”
“Pain is a difficult topic because there is no way we can measure it,” he told the NBC 6 Investigators. “This we have to take the individual’s word for it.”
In the end, Ellenby said he is proud to be saving some victims from a worse fate.
“One of my greatest accomplishments is getting people who have severe pain off of opioids,” he said.
At another clinic, Boris Gordienko said he is living proof that medical marijuana can alleviate reliance on harder drugs.
“I had a diagnosis of depression, started losing interest in many things,” he said.
Then, Gordienko said a painful foot condition led him to a pot-based topical cream. He said he noticed his pain got better and then, with smokable medical marijuana, his urges for other drugs and alcohol went away too.
He said the “new Boris" is “very happy, very excited.”
“I stopped drinking. I stopped doing drugs and on top of that my girlfriend got pregnant,” he said.
Reminded that THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, is considered a drug and that some call it a “gateway drug” to more dangerous substances, Gordienko took issue with that description.
“I would say it’s a ‘safeway’ drug,” he said.
Both Ellenby and the doctor treating Gordienko were disciplined from the state years ago related, in part, to allegations of improperly prescribing medication.
Ellenby told us he’d since moved on and tried to learn from his mistakes.
Neither doctor is currently the subject of any disciplinary proceedings.