State’s health-care giant opens door to writing cannabis recommendations to qualifying Utah patients

FILE - In this Nov. 1, 2012 file photo, a marijuana plant grows at Tikkun Olam medical cannabis farm, near Safed, Israel. On Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019, the Israeli Cabinet approved a law permitting the export of medical marijuana, a move the government expects will catapult investment in local industry and agriculture. The government's decision came a month after the Israeli parliament unanimously approved the decision, making Israel the third country in the world, after the Netherlands and Canada, to allow export of medical cannabis products. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty, File)

Utah’s largest health provider has given its physicians the all-clear to recommend medical marijuana to qualifying patients, potentially alleviating a bottleneck that had largely stalled the state’s new cannabis program.

On Wednesday, Intermountain Healthcare’s chief physician executive sent out a memo to its massive caregiver network, lifting a prior directive that advised physicians not to write letters recommending cannabis treatments.

"If you 1) have an established relationship with a patient who has a qualifying condition; 2) feel that they could benefit from treatment with medical cannabis; and 3) are comfortable providing a letter, you can now do so," the memo from Mark Briesacher, Intermountain's chief physician executive, stated.

Reached Wednesday evening, an Intermountain spokesperson would not comment on the memo and would only say that the health care system will share more information during a Thursday morning news conference.

However, Connor Boyack, an advocate who was instrumental in writing the state's new cannabis law, welcomed news that Intermountain had changed its stance.

“While we wished that would’ve been the position on Day One when the law was passed, in the grand scheme of things, this is a very quick turnaround for them, and we’re ecstatic,” said Boyack, founder of the libertarian Libertas Institute.

The physician letters of recommendation are a key part of providing immediate access to cannabis treatments under the state law passed in December. It will take time for cannabis cards to become available and for marijuana pharmacies to open, but during the interim, patients can use the letters as a safeguard from criminal repercussions if they’re found carrying the substance.

But initially, Intermountain advised its network not to issue the recommendations, with Briesacher saying there were “too many unknown details at this point for these letters to be provided to patients.” Physicians in other groups also seemed tentative about testing the new legal framework, and many patients have been unable to find doctors comfortable discussing cannabis treatments.

In recent weeks, advocates and even former House Speaker Greg Hughes have been pressing the state’s medical providers to relax their stance and allow doctors to make the recommendations.

“You look at the size of that physician network," Hughes said last week, referring to Intermountain’s roughly 1,500 doctors. “It’s pretty important that we have their participation.”

Briesacher’s new memo mentions that in recent weeks, Intermountain leaders have been meeting with patients and family members, advocacy groups, pharmacists and all types of medical professionals.

“These have been informative and collaborative discussions. We will need the continued interest and engagement from everyone who has helped so far so we, together, can learn how this new public policy and approach will work and how we can continuously improve our care for patients and families,” he wrote.

His memo reviewed the provisions of Utah’s new law, noting that only people with specific conditions — such as cancer or epilepsy — are eligible for cannabis and that patients must carry the substance in medicinal dosage form. He also explained the potential challenges wound up in using a federally-illegal substance as a medical treatment.

“Based on the experiences of other states with legalized cannabis, we believe the risk of federal action against healthcare institutions and providers is low. However, the risk is not zero,” Briesacher wrote, adding that Intermountain’s providers are not obligated to recommend cannabis.

Other medical groups might also be warming to the idea of medical marijuana. University of Utah Health has indicated it is working to develop new guidelines for its providers, and its statements led many to conclude its physicians were prohibited from issuing the recommendations.

However, Edward Clark, president of the University of Utah Medical Group, said the organization’s doctors are not restricted.

“Any provider has authority to issue a letter of recommendation,” he said in an interview last week. “This is the doctor-patient relationship, and they have authority we don’t interfere with.”