A dangerous neighborhood.
The threat of arrest, or worse.
An unreliable product, sold by criminals.
For seriously ill patients who rely on medical marijuana to ease their pain, paying for their treatment can be a “risky operation,” according to multiple sclerosis patient Julie Falco.
But if officials at Swedish Covenant Hospital get their way, medical marijuana users like Falco could one day purchase their cannabis at a hospital dispensary — just like a patient buying a dosed antibiotic or a powerful pain reliever at the hospital’s pharmacy.
“We have professionals who very much would like to prescribe those drugs, we have the system in place to manage it and we have the patient population that needs it,” said Marcia Jimenez, the hospital’s director of intergovernmental affairs. “It just made a lot of sense.”
Swedish Covenant wants to be the first Illinois hospital to take advantage of the state’s decision last year to legalize medical marijuana — a decision that’s likely to trigger a marijuana “Gold Rush.”
The state has agreed to issue 60 permits to sell the drug — 13 of which will be in Chicago.
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Swedish Covenant would like to grab one of them but is hamstrung by federal law, which still treats all marijuana as illegal.
“If the hospital were to become a dispensary at this point, we would be violating the federal law and jeopardizing reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid,” said Jimenez, who is calling for Congress to catch up with the growing number of states allowing medical marijuana.
As it stands, hospital bosses are concerned they could also be targeted for criminal activity or find themselves in trouble with the IRS.
“It’s not something the hospital could risk and still stay financially viable,” Jimenez said. “So we’re outspoken about it. We think hospitals are the best choice for dispensing. Unless someone speaks up, we’re not going to be able to change the federal law.”
So far, no hospital in the 23 states or Washington, D.C., where medical pot is legal, has sold marijuana, said Chris Lindsey, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Some Chicago hospitals said they’re working out how to deal with patients who use marijuana as medicine, but dispensary plans aren’t in the works.
At Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the organization likely won’t be in the medical pot business, according to Cindy Barnard, the hospital’s director of quality strategies.
“We tend to focus on the things we know how to do well, and that’s just not one of the things that’s been in our service line,.” Barnard said.
At Rush University Medical Center, officials don’t yet know what they’re doing.
“There are a lot of nuances,” said Katie Struck, a lawyer for the hospital. “As much as we want to make sure we are doing everything we can for our patients, we also don’t want to necessarily be trailblazers in the sense where we’re, kind of, pushing the envelope in ways we don’t need to. It’s a delicate balance.”
But at Swedish Covenant in the Lincoln Square neighborhood on the North Side, Jeffrey Cilley, an oncologist, said doctors are interested in using medical pot for their cancer patients to help them deal with symptoms like pain, nausea and anxiety.
“There’s an incredible interest from a lot of patients,” the doctor said. “I’ve had patients that have traveled out of state to try to experiment and see.”
If the hospital ever opens a marijuana dispensary, it would be inside an existing pharmacy on California Avenue, said Ramesh Patel, the hospital’s director of pharmacy services.
“What can be more secure than what we are doing right now?” Patel said. “We are already dispensing opioids and all kinds of narcotics.”
Falco, the multiple sclerosis patient who uses marijuana to help with uncontrollable leg spasms and other symptoms, said that reasoning makes sense.
“Having hospitals involved with this is certainly a plus because it’s evoking a safer situation for patients to go where they’re frequenting already,” said the 49-year-old from Ravenswood.
Swedish Covenant’s boss, Mark Newton, acknowledged marijuana is a money-making opportunity.
“We have to find ways of getting out and in front of issues and really looking at opportunities where we can stay on track and on par with what the consumer is looking for,” he said.
Besides the federal roadblocks hospitals face, a state requirement that dispensaries be 1,000 feet away from a school playground, child care center, public park or library also poses a problem to hospital bosses’ dreams of opening dispensaries.
Newton, whose hospital abuts a school, has asked the state to exempt hospitals from that requirement.
Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, a sponsor of the medical marijuana legislation, said he’s not opposed to the idea but doubts any changes would come this legislative session.
“It’s clear the federal government is trying to stay out of the way of legal medical marijuana sales, and it may be these folks wouldn’t have a problem, but if it was me I wouldn’t take that chance,” he said.