Bad medicine

Hospitals snuff out patients' medical marijuana use

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly


A Boulder man’s claim that Boulder Community Hospital reversed its position on allowing him to use his medical marijuana on the premises has raised questions about how closely medical staff follow hospital policies prohibiting cannabis use on site.

The man, who asked to have his name withheld because he fears retribution, asserts that he and his wife were told by a BCH nurse in April that he could smoke medical marijuana at the west end of the BCH parking lot as long as he did it discreetly in his car. But he claims that hospital staff backed off that stance after he used cannabis in the parking lot during a Sept. 12–13 hospital stay.

The man says that when he left the hospital to smoke in the parking lot, security guards thought he was leaving the premises against the medical advice of his doctor, and BCH staff discharged him as a result. He maintains that he needed to smoke the marijuana because he was nauseous and vomiting at the time, and he is allergic to the other medicines the hospital administers for such symptoms.

The man did provide Boulder Weekly with a letter from BCH outlining concerns about the number of times he has been coming to the emergency room for chronic pain and vomiting, with requests for narcotic pain medication. The letter states that BCH will provide him with hydration and anti-nausea medication, but will no longer give him narcotic pain medication unless he is suffering from an “acute medical condition.”

Celanie Pinnell, a communications specialist for BCH, told Boulder Weekly that the hospital complies with federal law, under which marijuana is an illegal controlled substance, and as a result, no type of marijuana is permitted on the premises, including the parking lot.

And yet the patient who was discharged on Sept. 13 claims that his BCH doctor signed off on his medical marijuana card and is well aware that cannabis is among the medications he takes regularly.

The situation raises questions about how hospital doctors deal with what Pinnell acknowledges is a gray area — the legitimate use of marijuana as a medicine by patients of a facility that is required to treat it as an illegal drug.

Citing federal privacy laws, Pinnell would not comment on the man’s specific case, but she says no BCH employee can authorize marijuana use, and smoking of any kind is prohibited on the entire BCH campus.

When asked whether it would be incorrect for a nurse to tell a patient that he could smoke medical cannabis in his car in the parking lot, Pinnell would not comment. She did say that hospital staff are educated about the cannabis prohibition during their initial training, and it is widely known that it is a non-smoking campus.

Pinnell says that no one employed by BCH may sign off on a medical marijuana card, although doctors who have their own practices outside the hospital may do so.

“If it is a hospital health care professional, no,” Pinnell says. “If they are an employee of the hospital, they would have to abide by federal law.”

As for how BCH doctors deal with patients who use cannabis, she says that is between the doc- tor and the patient.

“It might be kind of tricky,” she acknowledges. “It’s all very new.”

In response to a question about whether BCH employees are expected to report what the hospital considers illegal drug use, Pinnell says that if a patient is registered with the state as a medical marijuana user with the state, there shouldn’t be a need for BCH doctors or nurses to report cannabis use.

“I’d imagine they’d be on the phone a lot,” she says with a laugh.

According to Pinnell, BCH does prescribe Marinol, a synthetic drug that is chemically similar to marijuana and offers similar benefits.

Niles Utlaut, an ophthalmologist whose office is located in the hospital, told Boulder Weekly that he didn’t know what the BCH policy is on medical marijuana, but it doesn’t apply to him anyway since he is not employed by the hospital.

Utlaut says that while cannabis does mildly reduce eye pressure, he only recommends it to patients as a last resort, after they have tried all other therapies. Still, he says, from a philosophical standpoint, if a patient has severe, chronic pain or is terminally ill, “if they think it helps, why the hell not let them use it?” Timothy Tipton of Denver, a court-certified cannabis expert and patient advocate, says he knows of no hospitals in the area that permit the use — or even possession — of medical marijuana in their facilities.

About six years ago, he says, a card-carrying medical marijuana patient brought her cannabis with her to Exempla Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge, and when she learned of their policy prohibiting it, she called Tipton to come get the medicine because he was certified as her caregiver. When he arrived, he says, “security got their underwear all up in a bind about it, and the police came out because they didn’t want me to take possession of her marijuana.”

Things have improved somewhat since then, Tipton says, citing another patient who brought his cannabis with him when he was admitted into Porter Adventist Hospital for surgery last summer. Hospital staff simply stored the marijuana with his other belongings, “so there wasn’t a major freakout like there used to be,” Tipton explains.

That patient, Larry Shurtleff, told Boulder Weekly that while hospitals are not as understanding of cannabis as they should be, “there’s really not much they can say about it,” because it’s legal under state law.

Tipton, who is an instructor for the Cannabis Therapy Institute, calls cannabis “the most benign substance on the planet” and says other drugs prescribed by hospitals — not to mention the ailments themselves — are much worse for one’s health.

“The intake of synthetic drugs into the body is not something you want long term,” he says.

Tipton notes that for non-smoking medical campuses, there are alternatives to smoking, from edibles to e-cigarettes that rely on cannabis oil and emit only vapor, do not smell and deliver 200 doses per cartridge.

He says medical marijuana patients can sometimes get away with using cannabis by going to a smoking area at a medical campus, and one patient “would go the next block over in the alley to smoke his joint.” Tipton even recalls a patient at BCH who used to go to his girlfriend’s van in the parking lot to medicate.

He says he sees similar issues in nursing homes, many of which do not permit cannabis on the premises. Those that do have started requiring patients to medicate in the privacy of their own rooms, so that they don’t disturb — or tempt — fellow residents. According to Tipton, at one assisted living center, a medical marijuana patient was eating a cannabis cookie when she was assaulted by another resident who wanted it.

Inquiries into cannabis policies at other local medical facilities such as Longmont United Hospital and Kaiser Permanente did not yield replies by deadline.

“It still hasn’t reached the point where patients can medicate in the hospital,” Tipton says. “I think it’s very sad that the traditional medical community hasn’t educated itself on this.

… We’ve had nurses who wigged out completely over hard candy.”