SALT LAKE CITY -- Patient advocates are praising Intermountain Healthcare's decision to allow physicians to begin recommending medical cannabis.
The state's largest healthcare network confirmed at a news conference Thursday it was implementing policies and procedures for physicians to do it. FOX 13 reported on an internal memo on Wednesday night that removed an initial prohibition on medical cannabis for doctors.
"We’re ready for patients to meet with their physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and begin the conversation around, 'Is medical cannabis something that I should consider?'" said Dr. Mark Briesacher, Intermountain's Chief Physician Executive.
Christine Stenquist, the founder of Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education (TRUCE) said the announcement gives patients hope.
"I think it is amazingly huge and not just for helping the patients in their network but standing as a pillar in the community and standing there and saying, 'This is what we need to be doing and standing with the patients we serve,'" she said Thursday.
Dr. Briesacher cautioned the change in policy is not a mandate. Doctors can still refuse to recommend if they don't want to. But Intermountain's decision carries a lot of weight. They represent the most patients.
The recommendations are critical because they provide patients with an "affirmative defense" if they are busted for marijuana possession. Right now, qualifying medical cannabis patients can possess marijuana in the required formats (oils, tinctures, cube-shaped gummies and buds) and avoid prosecution. Because Utah has no system set up, patients right now obtain it off the black market or out-of-state.
In November, voters approved Proposition 2 and a month later, the Utah State Legislature replaced it with a "compromise" bill that was the subject of negotiations between supporters and opponents of the initiative. Both sets of laws created a medical cannabis system in Utah but also allowed qualifying patients to begin using immediately to treat various illnesses.
In December, FOX 13 obtained internal memos from Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health that told physicians not to recommend cannabis until they figured out the new law. That frustrated patient advocates who complained of a small number of independent physicians willing to recommend the newly legalized medicine.
For Desiree Hennessy, the new director of the Utah Patients Coalition, Intermountain's decision is helpful. Her son, Hestevan, is an Intermountain patient and he uses medical cannabis to treat a number of things.
"I will make an appointment with his doctor now. He knows we’ve been using, we told him after we started in November. We’re going to get a letter and keep using the same cannabis the same strain," she said.
Intermountain's decision follows a statement to FOX 13 by University of Utah Health that physicians within its network can recommend medical cannabis on a "case-by-case" basis.
On Thursday, the Huntsman Cancer Institute said it would follow U of U Health's guidance. In a 2017 interview prior to his death, founder Jon Huntsman Sr. told FOX 13: "I'm a very strong advocate for medical marijuana."
MountainStar Healthcare employs about 120 physicians and practitioners at its clinics and has 3,000 credentialed (who are not employees) for its hospitals.
"With an emphasis on effectively meeting every patient’s medical needs, our employed physicians and practitioners can certify that a patient has a qualifying health condition, as outlined by the Utah Medical Cannabis Act," MountainStar Healthcare spokeswoman Audrey Glasby said.
Hennessy said her group was glad to move past the provider recommendation issue. Now, the Utah Patients Coalition was focusing on a new problem: police. Some agencies believe the law doesn't take effect until 2020. That's the year the state-run dispensary takes effect. Under the law, patients can possess now.
"Our next hurdle is going to be the police officers who don’t necessarily understand," she said.
Watch Intermountain Healthcare's news conference here: