Medical marijuana will soon be legally distributed in Illinois, and officials at Swedish Covenant Hospital on Chicago’s North Side say their pharmacy deserves to be among the dispensaries.
They say marijuana could benefit patients with cancer and other serious maladies, and that hospital pharmacists already dispense drugs that that are much more potentially dangerous than cannabis.
One problem, though: Pot, medical or otherwise, remains illegal under federal law, and any hospital that fills marijuana prescriptions risks its Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.
So for now, Swedish Covenant officials say they can only try to influence the conversation about the distribution of medical marijuana, pointing out what they see as the illogical exclusion of hospital personnel.
“As long as there’s no change to the federal law, we couldn’t jeopardize services by becoming a dispensary … but we’re not afraid of making the noise,” said Marcia Jimenez, hospital director of intergovernmental affairs.
Hospitals around the country have grappled with this conundrum as more states pass medical marijuana laws. Twenty-three states plus the District of Columbia permit medical use of the drug, but Chris Lindsey of the Marijuana Policy Project said he is unaware of any hospital pharmacy that dispenses marijuana.
He said Maryland officials at first required medical marijuana to be distributed through hospitals, but dropped the idea when none would do it.
Marijuana’s continuing illegality under federal law, Lindsey said, “places large organizations such as hospitals in a very risky position, which could lead to criminal charges for officers, doctors or investors, and possible asset forfeiture for hospital property. There is too much on the line for hospitals to go there.”
ASHP, a professional organization that represents the nation’s hospital pharmacists, offered another reason to keep hospitals away from marijuana distribution — there are, as yet, no standards from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regarding medical marijuana.
“While there are published studies showing that marijuana can improve certain medical conditions, it has not gone through this rigorous approval process and does not easily lend itself to standardization of packaging and dosing,” said Douglas Scheckelhoff, a vice president in the group’s office of practice advancement.
“Also, FDA-approved medications are obtained from established, licensed manufacturers and distributors. This type of supply chain does not exist for marijuana.”
Some hospitals have taken small, limited steps toward working with marijuana. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, for instance, has been granted federal permission to take part in a clinical trial of Epidiolex, a non-psychoactive marijuana derivative used to treat children with severe epilepsy.
And there is some movement at the federal level. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to defund Drug Enforcement Administration crackdowns on medical marijuana establishments permitted by the states.
Jimenez, however, said even if that measure were to become law, it still wouldn’t be enough to allow Swedish Covenant to dispense the drug. Only crystal clear federal approval would do that, though Jimenez said such approval would be well justified.
“We really think that it’s very important for medical marijuana, just like all the other drugs we dispense here, to be (dispensed) in a medically professional way,” she said.
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