By the time Dr. Phillip Leveque arrived for his 61st Hood River High School class reunion last week, he had garnered more notoriety than any of this peers.
And most of that within the past month.
Leveque has recently come under fire for signing more than 40 percent of the approved medical-marijuana card applications in Oregon. But the Molalla resident, a native of Hood River, said he has taken that action simply to make chronic pain sufferers more comfortable -- not enable them to get "high."
"There are not two sides to this issue, there is only one and I consider it my moral obligation as a physician to help my patients feel better," said Leveque.
He believes the current uproar over his preference of using a natural painkiller rather than addictive narcotics is being driven by money. He said marijuana is currently available "on the street" and has not been carried by most major pharmaceutical companies since it was prohibited in 1937. And he can't find any reason that marijuana use would be more harmful than chemicals.
"This is crazy because some people have had to be on prescription drugs for years and sometimes the allowable dosages don't even control their level of pain," said Leveque.
He said because medical-marijuana has a street value of about $400 per ounce, long-term patients learn to economize by using only two or three "hits" to alleviate their symptoms.
"They are not into this to get 'high', they are looking for a way to relieve their pain," said Leveque.
And the 77-year-old osteopath understands what it is like to live with chronic pain. Ten years ago, he was injected with an accidental overdose of spinal anesthetic during a prostrate operation that has left him with a burning sensation in both his tailbone and feet.
However, he doesn't use medical-marijuana to relieve his own discomfort because he is concerned that would give his critics the opportunity to say he is just championing his own cause.
To qualify for medical-marijuana under Oregon's two-year-old law, patient's must be suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, agitation from Alzheimer's or a medical condition that has wasting, spasms, seizures, or severe nausea and/or pain.
Leveque has signed more authorizations in the state for medical marijuana than any other doctor. Because more than 1,500 applications have been submitted with his signature, state health authorities have launched an inquiry into Leveque's patient records. He has refused to turn over the medical files on 800 of his patients who still have applications pending because he said it will violate doctor-patient confidentiality.
His cause is being championed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Voter Power, the citizens group that backed Oregon's marijuana ballot initiative. The two activist groups are concerned that the state requirement violates doctor-patient confidence. Until that issue is resolved, most likely in court, health authorities have adopted temporary rules that require applicants to agree to have their medical records examined before they can receive a marijuana card. These rules also require the attending physician to review medical records, conduct a physical exam, develop a treatment plan and provide follow-up care that is documented in an ongoing patient file.
"Some of these people live eight hours or more away and to require them to make regular personal visits to see me is ridiculous," said Leveque.
The state Board of Medical Examiners is conducting a separate investigation into an allegation that Leveque authorized a medical marijuana card without adequate examination, consultation or follow-up.
Leveque denies that he has done anything improper and said he is being targeted because he refuses to go along with a system that is failing some of its most needy citizens. However, he is undeterred in his quest to fulfill what he believes is his sacred duty as a physician: dispensing comfort to the people under his care.
And he is no stranger to controversy.
In 1986 Leveque was placed on licensing probation for 10 years for allegedly overprescribing pain medications to patients. It was during that hiatus that he used his background as a forensic toxiologist to research the therapeutic effects of marijuana. The more he learned the more Leveque said he began to view cannabis as the drug of choice for long-term illnesses.
Since his name hit the Oregon newspapers, Leveque said other doctors have backed away from helping patients receive medical-marijuana cards. He said that move has left many Oregon residents underserved and he is now getting as many as 40 new requests a day from potential patients. In spite of the pressure from the state, he's vowed to continue the campaign he started five years ago when he successfully set out to convince voters that medical-marijuana should be readily available to people with chronic pain.
"I think what really bothers me is that there are 7,000 doctors in Oregon and only 500 of them have signed applications, which leaves 6,500 that aren't serving their patients," said Leveque.