Reeking of Sin

Catholic Hospital Calls Cops on a Patient for Smelling of (Legal) Marijuana

Reeking of Sin
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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." recommended


Comments (8) RSS

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OH Yes, FIND this untrustworthy Nurse and make a complete example out of her. Take her license and make a serious example out of her for ALL WA ST. citizens to see. Next healthcare practitioners will be snitching on breastfeeding mothers who use cannibas, citing child endangerment, while ruining the lives of thousands of families and arresting the hold household!!!! this is sick!!
Posted by Elaine Muhummad on March 27, 2013 at 1:40 PM · Report this
that's what you get when religion gets in the way of health care. Can't get much holier than thou than devout catholics. Oh, and that nurse should be fired for breaching patient confidentiality. It never fails to amaze me that the rest of us (the majority) put up with their bullshit.
Posted by diz on March 27, 2013 at 8:20 PM · Report this
Religious hospitals should not be allowed to dictate public health policy and deprive private citizens of the ability to exercise their rights as they see fit. It was good to see the police officer showing restraint and reason, although I'm not entirely sure he should have shown up in the first place. I think the police have more important things to do.
Posted by H3ADLINE on April 1, 2013 at 12:51 PM · Report this
Good God, this shit's gotta stop!!!
Posted by auntie grizelda on April 1, 2013 at 1:33 PM · Report this
And I hope Zimmerman gets filthy, stinking RICH after suing these "religious" fucksticks!
Take the "Church's" tainted money away, and let's see just how great and mighty they are THEN.
Posted by auntie grizelda on April 1, 2013 at 1:41 PM · Report this
The question that would be raised in the medical review board discussion, I believe, is whether his marijuana use/possession was an aspect of his protected health information.

Prescription medications are part of protected health information. But marijuana is not a prescription medication. Even under the medical marijuana laws it is not really considered one, it is considered substance alcohol or nicotine even though it is theoretically being used to treat a condition. Us providers, even when we authorize a Green Card, don't write a prescription, we write an endorsement which allows the Green Card, it's not the same as a prescription.

So if his health visit was not about marijuana use and he did not imply he used it to treat a medical condition, the practitioner would firmly place it in the "Social" category along with alcohol, nicotine and any other substance use (legal or illegal). Had he had a beer on him and smelled of beer, she would have a potential public safety obligation if she had reason to believe he was planning to drive. So if he smelled of marijuana and acted impaired would she have a similar obligation? At least a similar one. And again, I'm unsure it would really fall under protected health information in that setting.

As a medical professional it's an interesting question honestly.

(For the record, unless I believed someone was heavily impaired and planning to drive, I certainly wouldn't be calling the cops, but I might try and convince the person to take an alternative transportation measure)
Posted by tempo36 on April 2, 2013 at 4:24 PM · Report this
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yeah... So the nurse followed hospital policy, don't hang her out to dry, hang the hospital out, they are the ones who created that policy.
I'm happy that LE was reasonable about the situation.
As for medical advice, if you're going into a private hospital who has established views on certain substances, go blame your fucking ignorance!
Posted by Designed_for_Windows_XP on April 17, 2013 at 7:56 PM · Report this

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