FORT MYERS, Fla. — After serving 20 years in the Navy, veteran Jeff DeMond has the scars to show for it.

“I feel it was like playing pro sports, like football,” DeMond said. “I’ve had four ankle reconstructions. My knee is messed up; my hip is messed up. My right shoulder replaced at 49. My bicep has been torn, my wrist has been reconstructed.”

All those injuries — and all the surgeries that followed them — once sent DeMond spiraling into opioid addiction.

Upon his retirement from the Navy in 2006, he said he was on 16 medications per day.

“120 milligrams of morphine, 80 milligrams of OxyContin, 6 milligrams of Klonopin. Effexor, Cymbalta, Lyrica, Neurontin,” DeMond recalled. “There was nothing behind my eyes. I had no feeling. No care. At all.”

But a few years after that came a turning point: DeMond started using marijuana as medicine.

He said he immediately halved his prescriptions, was more active and social, and after only a couple of years was off opioids altogether.

For him, marijuana changed everything.

“I just think about the amount of opioids I was on then — and how I was using them — and there’s no way I’d be sitting here. No way,” DeMond tearfully recalled. “(Marijuana) saved my life.”

DeMond moved from Illinois to Florida in 2014, and two years later, the Sunshine State made it official: medical marijuana was legalized.

Now, he’s a patient of Dr. Gregory Sonn, who runs the Iona Cannabis Clinic in Fort Myers.

DeMond is just one of many patients.

“It’s gotten huge, I would say,” Dr. Sonn said of his practice.

“Huge” hardly describes it. In just three years, Dr. Sonn has gone from a small office to six clinics across Southwest Florida.

In fact, the NBC2 investigators discovered he’s now the biggest pot prescriber in the entire state.

That’s nearly double the next closest doctor in Florida, who issued 2,564 certifications.

It’s far more than the state average of just 140 certifications per physician.

“I was ecstatic,” Dr. Sonn said upon learning of the statistics. “It shows that a lot of hard work is paying off.”

But not everyone is ecstatic about the numbers.

A state panel reviewing the data expressed major concern during a meeting in August — not with Dr. Sonn specifically but with the big prescribers as a whole.

More than half of all certifications were made by just seven percent of physicians.

“I look at this data, and I said, ‘Well, this just another form of a pill mill,’” Dr. Sarvam TerKonda said during a teleconference call for the Physician Certification Pattern Review Panel. “That seven percentage of physicians to me is a real concern. We know that this is really cash-paying.”

“That’s awful,” Dr. Sonn said of TerKonda’s “pill mill” comment. “I am getting people off their opiates and benzos.”

In an interview with the NBC2 Investigators, Dr. Sonn defended his work. Despite his massive patient numbers, he insists he is running his clinics legally.

“We follow the letter(s) of the law as well as we can — as we know them. And I say that because up until this point, there’s really been no communication between those boards and practicing physicians like myself,” Dr. Sonn said. “It would be really nice if they asked us why we’re so successful.”

The NBC2 Investigators tried to set up interviews with Dr. Terkonda and some of the other review panel members, but the state declined our request.

Now, Dr. Sonn wonders if his success will put him under a microscope.

“I do think its a bit frightening, in a way,” he said. “Any time that you deal with some administrative board, there’s worry. But again — I do this 100 percent by the rules. I follow the rules as I know them.”

For now, it’s unclear what recommendations the state panel might make and how those could impact medical marijuana clinics across Florida.

What is clear is that Dr. Sonn isn’t short of supporters — including Jeff DeMond.

“There’s a reason why people buy Coke over RC Cola. It’s better. Doc Sonn has a lot of patients because he’s knowledgeable,” DeMond said.

The review panel, which was put together as part of Florida’s medical marijuana law, will meet again next week to go over new data. They are expected to submit a report at the start of the new year with their recommendations to the legislature.

© Copyright 2019 WBBH/WZVN (Waterman Broadcasting). All rights reserved.