Dr. No Feelgood
Memorial says no to pot
But even if Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the bill, some pain patients in Springfield who’d like to try cannabis could be out of luck. Ask Charles King.
King got in touch recently after I wrote about Jimmy Garland, a state retiree who says that he was rejected as a patient at Memorial Medical Center’s pain clinic due to a positive marijuana test. Garland, who suffers pain due to a motorcycle accident that cost him his left arm, told me that Memorial never asked whether he smoked pot before he went through a battery of tests, including an EKG, blood work, a written psychological exam, plus a visit with a shrink. After he’d done all that, he says that Memorial informed him that the results of a drug test – one of the first things he underwent – had come back positive for pot, so he should go elsewhere.
Given that results from drug test kits sold at Walgreens are ready in minutes, I had wondered why Memorial simply didn’t test Garland for drugs, then send him on his way, thus saving the trouble of other tests that cost more than $1,100, not including bills for the psychological screening, the last thing he underwent. Through spokesman Michael Leathers, Memorial officials declined to discuss Garland’s case, or even generic policies and procedures when it comes to pain patients who use cannabis, and so it was, to some extent, a he-said-she-said, or, more accurately, a he-said-she-took-the-Fifth.
Then King called, and it turns out that Memorial does have a bright-line policy on pot.
Like Garland, King had been in a motorcycle accident in the 1970s. He ended up impaled on roadside rebar and in long-term pain. He found relief in morphine, which his physician – the same one who had treated Garland – prescribed for 15 years before retiring late last year. In December, King, a computer programmer for the state, contacted Memorial in hopes of getting into the pain clinic. He informed the hospital that he holds a medical marijuana card, that he was afraid that no one would continue his morphine prescriptions and that he was considering spinal cord surgery to replace painkillers.
In an email forwarded to King, a pain clinic doctor wrote that evaluation and screening would take several weeks, and so he either should be weaned off morphine by his soon-to-retire doctor or sent to detox.
“You can also make him aware that any patient on medical marijuana will not be treated concurrently with opioids in my practice,” wrote the doctor, who didn’t attach his name to the email. Memorial didn’t respond to an inquiry sent to Leathers that included a copy of the email as well as a request to speak with the physician.
“I think you just need to educate some of these doctors,” says Dan Linn, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws and manager of two pot dispensaries, when told of the pain clinic’s refusal to accept medical marijuana patients.
The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2014 published a study showing that states with medical marijuana laws have 25 percent fewer opioid overdoses than states that outlaw pot. Doctors are crucial if the bill passed by the General Assembly has any hope of reducing opioid consumption. The new law would require the approval of treating doctors before patients could obtain medical cannabis, either as a substitute for opioids or to augment prescriptions for addictive painkillers. Such approval would seem unlikely at a pain clinic that won’t treat anyone who uses medical marijuana.
I’m not sure that rigid policies or preconceived notions work any better in the field of medicine than anywhere else. A few years ago, I watched a doctor spend nearly an hour talking with my father, whose prior physicians were mystified by sudden and dramatic weight loss. Oxycodone, which my father has taken for years, was part of the conversation. With opioids, my dad, even in his 80s, can chop wood and putter in his garden and go fishing; without them, he’d just stay in the house. My father’s new doctor frowned at first – long-term painkiller use, after all, is supposed to be bad – but he listened to what my dad said, and he didn’t cut off the Oxycodone. The doctor did, however, discontinue a litany of other prescription drugs, and my dad was soon back to fighting weight. He’s alive today thanks to a doctor who listened before passing judgment.
King, also, is doing better, thanks to a surgeon at Johns Hopkins in Maryland who performed spinal cord surgery in March. While the operation has eliminated his pain, King says that he can’t walk as well as he once did, which he deems an acceptable tradeoff. The untreated pain, King says, was so bad that he had trouble thinking. The physician at Memorial’s pain clinic, he thinks, should be replaced.
“I don’t think this guy belongs in a situation where he can hurt people like he does,” King says. “Pain doesn’t stop unless there’s some help.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.