Intermountain Healthcare, U of U Health tell physicians not to make medical cannabis recommendations yet

SALT LAKE CITY -- Two of the state's largest healthcare networks are instructing their physicians and nurse practitioners not to issue medical cannabis recommendations to patients immediately.

The memos by Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Medical Group, shared with FOX 13, urge physicians to hold off.

"We’re already hearing about increasing requests from patients and their family members for certified written letters of consent that indicate a qualifying condition. As noted, there are too many unknown details at this point for these letters to be provided to patients, and the law does not go into effect until July 2019," wrote Dr. Mark Briesacher, the Chief Physician Executive for Intermountain Healthcare.

The law is actually already in effect and has been since Governor Herbert signed it earlier this month, an inconsistency that has caused frustration for some.

“It says the law doesn’t go into effect until July, that’s not true, the law’s actually in effect now,” said Connor Boyack of the Libertas Institute, which backed Proposition 2 and helped craft the language for the law the Utah State Legislature passed replacing it.

Dr. Briesacher said in the memo that while a medical cannabis infrastructure is put in place in Utah, physicians should tell patients and their families there were too many details to be worked out, and Intermountain is looking to state agencies for definitions.

"I’m committed to working with patients and families to recommend the safest and best treatment plans, and until the details associated with this law are provided along with the infrastructure to support safe and legally compliant administration, we will continue to work with you on to create treatment plans for your medical conditions," the memo instructs physicians to tell patients.

The memo by Dr. Edward Clark, the University of Utah Medical Group's president, said they were evaluating patient wellbeing, best practices for the clinical care teams and developing guidelines for medical cannabis requests.

"We ask for your patience," he wrote to physicians. "As patients are requesting this information, we suggest you inform them we are working through this new law and it will be several months before our organization is able to provide this documentation."

Medical cannabis advocates said the law already allows for physicians to make recommendations to patients and gives medical professionals legal protections from prosecution. State-run pharmacies and privately operated dispensaries are not expected to be operating in Utah until 2020.

Patients rely on those recommendations under "affirmative defense," which allows them to possess a personal quantity of marijuana in approved forms (tinctures, oils, cube-shaped gummies or vaping pens) to guard against prosecution.

"IHC employs a large percentage of doctors in our state. While we can appreciate their caution, we need their participation in order to protect IHC patients who qualify under the law to use medical cannabis," said Utah Patients Coalition director Desiree Hennessy.

In social media posts, the Utah Patients Coalition has told its members to seek medical advice and recommendations outside the Intermountain Healthcare network in the meantime. Hennessy said she had been told the University of Utah's healthcare group had told people to be patient while it reviews the newly passed law, warning it could take several months.

Boyack told FOX 13 the Utah Medical Association has sent out guidance, which correctly encouraged doctors to start issuing letters to provide patients.

“If the state’s largest employer of doctors isn’t willing to be at the table and let their doctors participate, it’s a huge concern we have,” Boyack added.

In a statement, Intermountain Healthcare told FOX 13:

“Intermountain Healthcare is committed to learning and continually evaluating the effectiveness and safety of medical cannabis therapy for patients with qualifying conditions and administering it in a responsible and controlled manner as we do with other medical treatments. Intermountain providers will continue to partner with their patients to decide together on safe and effective treatment options for all of their clinical conditions. Intermountain is currently studying possible changes to policies to fully meet the requirements of the new law. Intermountain will support its providers and caregivers so they understand the law, work with and support their patients and families, and recommend treatment plans that are safe, effective, and compliant with state law.”

Read the Intermountain Healthcare memo here:

Read the University of Utah Health memo here: