Dr. Dustin Sulak, shown in his Falmouth office, typically recommends treatments beyond cannabis, including vitamin D, turmeric or milk thistle supplements.
FALMOUTH - Dr. Dustin Sulak would like to have more competition, but at the moment he's one of few physicians in Maine to readily certify patients for medical marijuana use.
His osteopathic practice in Hallowell is booming as a result, drawing patients from Kittery to Fort Kent, so Sulak opened an office here last month at 170 U.S. Route 1.
Patients seeking medical marijuana certification must be diagnosed with a qualifying condition under Maine law, such as cancer, glaucoma or chronic pain. With Sulak, they also must undergo a 45-minute evaluation of their overall health and expect him to recommend treatments beyond cannabis, such as vitamin D, turmeric or milk thistle supplements.
"They usually leave with more than one recommendation," Sulak said. "I've devoted my life to helping people and healing people. Medical marijuana is just the biggest demand right now."
Sulak's expansion comes as Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill into law Friday that aims to protect the privacy of medical marijuana patients.
The bill, submitted by state Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, eliminates mandatory registration and disclosure of a patient's specific medical condition with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
It also creates a more workable process for adding qualifying conditions and prohibits the arrest of certified patients, caregivers and dispensary employees acting under the law.
The changes take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, which is expected next week.
Sulak's Hallowell practice has more than 1,000 patients who are served by him and two nurse practitioners.
"The practice is full," Sulak said. "We accept 30 to 40 new patients each month, but we're turning away hundreds each month."
Sulak expects to attract a similar number of patients to the Falmouth practice, which includes Cynthia Vail, a physician's assistant with 30 years of experience in primary care. The practice doesn't furnish marijuana; patients must get it from a certified caregiver or dispensary.
Sulak said he's frustrated that Maine physicians have been slow to embrace the opportunity to add medical marijuana to their treatment repertoire. Of Maine's 4,000 medical and osteopathic doctors, 112 have certified one or more patients for medical marijuana use, according to the Maine Medical Association.
"Some of them are comfortable with the law, some will grow more comfortable with the law over time, and some will never be comfortable with the law," said Gordon Smith, executive vice president of the medical association.
Smith said the association tries to remain neutral on whether doctors should certify patients for medical marijuana use, but it provides regular updates on related laws so doctors who choose to certify patients can minimize their risk of running afoul of the law.
"Most doctors don't believe drug policy should be decided by referendum," Smith said.
Sulak said patients often come to him after their regular doctors have refused to certify them for medical marijuana use. Afterward, if patients allow it, Sulak contacts their regular doctors and explains the certification process, hoping that the physicians will spare their patients a long drive to Hallowell or Falmouth. Instead, Sulak said, some doctors send more patients his way.
Sulak, 31, a Chicago native, lives in Manchester with his wife and one child. He graduated from Indiana University with bachelor's degrees in biology and nutrition and earned his physician's degree from Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine, according to his website, integr8health.com.
He's also a Reiki sensei, a certified clinical hypnotherapist and an advocate of using botanicals and other natural approaches, including medical marijuana, to promote health.
Sulak said it's time for lawmakers and the medical profession to catch up with the research community, which continues to find new medical uses for cannabis in studies limited to animals. Each time, he said, cannabis shows beneficial results with few harmful side effects, especially when compared to prescription drugs such as valium or OxyContin.
Sulak emphasizes education to optimize the benefits of medical marijuana and reduce potential harm. Using small amounts is usually more effective for pain management, nausea and other health problems, he said. It's also less costly, which is a concern since medical marijuana can cost $150 to $400 an ounce, depending on the source.
Sulak charges $300 cash for initial evaluations, $125 for follow-up visits and $250 for yearly evaluations, according to his website. Patients must pay when they schedule an appointment, must cancel 48 hours in advance or be charged the full cost of a visit, and must submit their own bills for health insurance reimbursements.
The relief is worth the cost for Bill Wagner, a sculptor who lives in Harpswell and recently became a patient at Sulak's Falmouth practice.
Wagner, 56, is a former construction worker who injured his back several times on the job and endured a variety of unsuccessful treatments. Before he visited Sulak, he was swallowing handfuls of ibuprofen each day, his blood pressure was way up and he was sleeping two or three hours a night.
He had used marijuana occasionally in the past and thought it might ease his back pain and let him get some sleep.
"It's been working out very well," Wagner said. "I've been sleeping five or six hours a night, which is a lot for me. I use very small amounts, usually at night. The way I see it, these guys are pioneers. I feel very fortunate that they're willing to help me in this way and I hope more doctors get on board."
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: