- Associated Press - Friday, June 5, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - A New York company is putting down roots in Minnesota by building up a network of doctors and clinics to put patients in line for medical marijuana - a business model that state officials had hoped to avoid.

MarijuanaDoctors.com is coordinating with doctors in Minnesota to set up clinics designed to give patients the sign-off required to register with the state to buy the new medicine. The first clinic, in Bloomington, filed its business registration forms this week. The company’s chief operating officer, John Nicolazzo, said three others will get started on Monday, with a dozen total planned.

Nicolazzo told The Associated Press on Thursday the company is merely trying to fill a void in Minnesota, where many doctors, clinics and hospitals are wary of taking part in registering patients for an expected July launch. His company has already done much the same in other states preparing medical marijuana programs.

But the state is on the lookout for quick-approval operations that may skirt the state law meant to ensure patients are certified to get medical marijuana only from doctors with whom they have a medical history. One doctor helping Minnesota write regulations for its program said he thought the clinics spearheaded by MarijuanaDoctors may be “preying upon anxious people who want an answer today.”

Nicolazzo rejected the suggestion that the clinics working with his company would violate any state law.

“Without us, there would be literally thousands of patients who would not be able to locate doctors that are willing to write a medical cannabis rec,” he said in an interview. “Without a company out there that is educating doctors … this program wouldn’t see the light of day.”

MarijuanaDoctors itself is not applying with the state to certify patients, but working in the background. The Minnesota facilities coordinated by Nicolazzo’s company would operate much like the 486 doctors and clinics MarijuanaDoctors has partnered with nationwide.

The company provides initial startup help, access to a backend patient scheduling system and, in some cases, some marketing assistance. In turn, the clinics pay between about $300 and $900 in monthly fees, Nicolazzo said.

Nicollazo said MarijuanaDoctors worked hard to follow Minnesota law. He said each of the 12 groups his company is working with has a specialist in one of the nine conditions that qualify for the program.

The first to pop up was the Minnesota Certification Clinic in Bloomington. Its website - promising “convenient” approval for the program - provided a glimmer of hope for Shelly Rapp. After her 18-year-old son Scott’s neurologist declined to fill out the necessary forms to buy medical marijuana to treat intractable seizures, it seemed promising.

But a high charge - $250 for the first appointment - and questions about whether the state has approved the clinic has her on edge about the appointment she scheduled later this month.

“If I can get a certification, I absolutely will,” she said. “If it’s not legitimate, there’s no way.”

A person who identified himself as one of two state-licensed physicians behind the Minnesota Certification Clinic, but would not give his name, declined an interview with the AP on Thursday.

Manny Munson-Regala, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the state is still reviewing applications from health care providers but couldn’t confirm whether the Minnesota Certification Clinic - or any specific group - was still pending.

The state wants to ensure that doctors giving patients the go-ahead are taking care of them in the long term, and not providing “certifications for hire,” Munson-Regala said. He urged patients seeking a doctor’s approval to ask any provider whether they have been OK’d by the state before paying money at an appointment.

Dr. Charles Reznikoff, a physician who helped Minnesota write its rules for the program, said Marijuana Doctors’ model clearly violates the spirit of Minnesota’s law. He cautioned patients anxious to try medical marijuana not to leave their doctor in order to get another’s approval.

“It shouldn’t be just a one-stop visit to be certified for cannabis, and then ‘See ya later,’” he said. “Don’t leave a doctor you otherwise like because of this. It won’t be worth it.”

Online research of MarijuanaDoctors and top executives found that four company employees, including Nicolazzo, were arrested in Nassau County, New York, last year after police found marijuana and cocaine in their company van during a traffic stop.

One employee was later fired for carrying the cocaine, which Nicolazzo said the company’s executives didn’t know about. Nicolazzo said he and another co-founder each served community service for having marijuana.

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