Twenty-seven-year-old Matthew Zimmerman wasn't thinking about the little bit of pot in his pocket when he went in for a routine exam at a Gig Harbor hospital yesterday, because Washington State voters legalized marijuana possession last fall. Plus, he says, "I forgot it was there." But shortly after a nurse smelled it and confronted Zimmerman, an officer arrived at the scene 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 may have breached medical ethics and privacy laws.
Zimmerman, who went to see Dr. Faron Bauer for reasons unrelated to his marijuana intake, says he was surprised when a nurse practitioner asked a seemingly innocuous question: Do you have any marijuana on you? In a phone interview today, he says he admitted when he remembered there was some 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."
Nevertheless, his doctor appointment went fine and his three grams of pot wasn't an issue—that is, until he stepped outside St. Anthony Hospital's Prompt Care facility and found a police officer waiting for him.
The Gig Harbor Police Department confirms that the hospital called yesterday about a man who allegedly was too high on marijuana to drive and dispatched an officer to the scene. "That was the hospital’s concern—that he couldn’t drive," explains Gig Harbor Police Department spokeswoman Debbie Eason. But the responding officer, 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."
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 breached.
Holcomb says that while physicians are duty-bound to report patients' conduct to authorities if they threaten the general public (say, a patient says he has urges to kill a bunch of people), merely stinking of marijuana does not meet that high bar. "This should be brought to the attention of the Medical Quality Assurance Commission—the body that investigates complaints of disciplinary breaches of medical health professionals," Holcomb says.
Zimmerman says he has filed a complaint with the commission.
"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.
Franciscan Health System, the Catholic hospital organization that runs St. Anthony, has yet to comment on the situation, put The Stranger in touch with the nurse practitioner, or say whether they believe their employee may have violated confidentiality rules.
Zimmerman describes the whole experience as "upsetting and embarrassing," adding, "There were tons of people going in and out of that door but [the officer] knew who I was. The nurse practitioner called the cops on me." Not only did the nurse practitioner apparently divulge his private information, he says, she also ensured that he was stopped and questioned about his use of a perfectly legal substance in public.
"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 says. "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. But she just went and called the cops."