Reeking of Sin
Catholic Hospital Calls Cops on a Patient for Smelling of (Legal) Marijuana
Matthew Zimmerman wasn't thinking about the small bag of pot in his pocket when he went in for a routine exam at a Gig Harbor medical center on March 18, because Washington State voters legalized marijuana possession last fall. Plus, he explains, "I forgot it was there." But shortly after a nurse smelled the marijuana and confronted Zimmerman, a police officer arrived to question him.
The incident raises alarms about someone reporting to police on what is now a perfectly legal activity, but it also raises questions about whether the Catholic-affiliated hospital breached medical ethics and privacy laws.
Zimmerman, 27, who had an appointment with Dr. Faron Bauer for reasons unrelated to his marijuana intake, says he was surprised when a nurse practitioner asked if he was carrying pot. In a phone interview, he says he admitted it when he remembered that he had about three grams of pot "underneath my second jacket."
"She asked if I used marijuana, and I said, 'Yeah, obviously,'" says Zimmerman, who does lighting and stage rigging for concerts. "She said that even with the [legalization] law out there, the doctor was not going to approve of my use of marijuana, and then she walked out."
His small stash of pot wasn't an issue with the doctor, but when Zimmerman stepped outside St. Anthony Hospital, a police officer stopped him.
"That nurse called the cops on me," says Zimmerman.
The hospital confirms that a staffer did report Zimmerman to the police. "In this case, one of the staff members at our Prompt Care facility in Gig Harbor was concerned that a patient may be impaired and would be operating his motorcycle after his appointment," explains Scott Thompson, a spokesman for Franciscan Health System, the religious organization that operates the hospital about 45 miles southwest of Seattle. "Out of concern for the safety of the patient and other motorists, local law enforcement was contacted to investigate the situation."
"That was the hospital's concern—that he couldn't drive," confirms Gig Harbor Police Department spokeswoman Debra Eason. But the responder, Officer Gary Dahm, didn't file a police report because, as Eason explains, "When the officer found him, he determined that Zimmerman wasn't impaired. He could drive."
Thompson declined to explain why, if they believed Zimmerman was too impaired to drive—which he wasn't—the hospital did not offer to call him a cab, the same way they might if someone was on painkillers. He also refused to comment on whether the staffer broke state and hospital rules governing patient privacy by reporting him to the police.
But Alison Holcomb, an attorney for the ACLU of Washington and the author of last year's marijuana-legalizing Initiative 502, says Zimmerman's privacy was violated.
"He was fully compliant with the law, but even if he weren't, I think there is still an issue of patient confidentiality being breached," Holcomb says. While physicians are duty bound to report patients' conduct to authorities if they threaten the general public (say, a patient confides that he has urges to kill a bunch of people), merely smelling of marijuana does not meet that high bar. She says Zimmerman should complain to the Medical Quality Assurance Commission, the state board that investigates complaints of disciplinary breaches of medical health professionals.
This troubling incident could also be seen as further proof of religious hospitals unnecessarily overreaching into the lives of the people they serve. Catholic hospitals often refuse to honor women's rights to access legal abortion unless a mother's life is in imminent danger. Medical staff at some religious hospitals also won't discuss the state's death with dignity law or other medical procedures that conflict with Catholic teachings.
Zimmerman says he has filed a complaint with the state. He describes the whole experience as "upsetting and embarrassing." Not only did the nurse practitioner apparently divulge his private information by identifying him to the police, he says, she also ensured that he was stopped and questioned in public about his use of a perfectly legal substance.
"We apologize that the patient may have been embarrassed by the response," says Thompson. "We are investigating the situation further so we can ensure that future situations are handled in the best and most compassionate way possible." He declined to elaborate on the hospital's current policies or procedures guiding patient marijuana use or to put The Stranger in contact with the cop-calling nurse.
For his part, Zimmerman finds the nurse's actions hypocritical and the hospital's reaction less than satisfying.
"They don't call the cops on everyone who they hand out pills to, but they call the police when they smell some marijuana?" Zimmerman asks rhetorically. "I wasn't under the influence. I just smelled like weed. They shouldn't be talking about my private information, about what I say inside the doctor's office, obviously."