Voters OK'd registry, but Owens and Salazar toss last-minute bomb By Lynn Bartels and John Sanko, News Capitol Bureau Colorado's medical marijuana program begins today amid threats from the state's top honchos that doctors who recommend pot for their chronically ill patients face federal prosecution. Voters approved Amendment 20 calling for medical marijuana in November, but Gov. Bill Owens and Attorney General Ken Salazar sent out warning letters Thursday saying it is ludicrous for Colorado to participate in the war on drugs while at the same time running a medical marijuana program with questionable benefits for users. Doctors differ on whether the letters Owens and Salzar fired off to the Colorado Medical Society and the U.S. attorney's office in Colorado will discourage physicians from joining in the program. Dr. Frank Sargent said the letters will make it more difficult for physicians, already leery of malpractice complaints. But Dr. Chris Ott, an emergency room specialist at Denver Health Medical Center, said doctors should not worry about saying patients might benefit from using pot. They are not actually prescribing marijuana, he said. "From a physician's standpoint there is no risk," he said. "This is simply a scare tactic." Program backers said Owens and Salazar are blowing smoke. The feds, they said, aren't going to arrest doctors for signing off on a state form designed by state officials after voters last November approved a state-run medical registry for marijuana patients. "The important thing is that the program is still on track," said Julie Roche, who helped put Amendment 20 on the ballot. Amendment 20 allows chronically ill patients to legally possess up to two ounces of pot and six marijuana plants if they have a letter from their doctor and are approved for the state registry. State officials have worked since Amendment 20's passage to gear up for today's opening. "We're ready," said Carol Garrett, registrar with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. So far, the department has received eight applications; about 600 are expected the first year, she said. The applications must include a letter from a doctor, but whether physicians will sign off is another matter. Some doctors balked even before Owens and Salazar fired off their letters Thursday. Don Eisen, 44, who has multiple sclerosis, said the doctor who treats him at the long-term health-care facility where he lives refused to sign the form. "He says he can't do it and he won't say why," the Denver resident said this week. "I think he's worried about his license to practice medicine." His doctor did not return calls. In their letter, Owens and Salazar urged Richard Spriggs, the acting U.S. attorney in Colorado, to enforce federal marijuana laws, including the ban on cultivation. The letter to Dr. Richard Allen, president of the Colorado Medical Society, warned of the "peril of potential federal prosecution." But what law doctors would be breaking is unclear. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Tom Ward, the No. 2 man in the Denver office, said the office has asked headquarters for "some guidance" on Amendment 20. "We investigate doctors when we see them prescribing controlled substances inappropriately," he said. "The key word here is 'prescribe.' " No prescriptions are involved in Colorado's medical marijuana program. The doctor signs a form that includes a checklist of illnesses the patient suffers from. "It is my conclusion that the applicant might benefit from the medical use of marijuana," the form states. Owens and Salazar said the federal courts and Congress need to address the issue. The U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled California's cannabis clubs were illegal, but that did not affect the state law that set up the medical marijuana program. The state's medical marijuana registry can be reached at (303) 692-2184.