Medical Cannabis in California’s Hospitals

Dr. Larry Bedard

Dr. Larry Bedard is a former emergency room physician and current member of the Board of Directors for the Marin Healthcare District. Dr. Bedard wants patients to openly and transparently use medicinal cannabis in hospital settings. He has been featured on Good Morning America, in the New York Times and the Huffington Post to talk about how and why he advocates for patient’s rights. We asked him to share his thoughts on medical cannabis with the Emerald Tribune. Here’s what he has to say.

While working as a psychiatrist in Jacksonville, Florida at the Navy Drug Rehabilitation Center (NDRC) in the 1970s, I drove past a large sign that read, “Sleep well tonight, your Navy is awake.” Yet, in the back of my mind I thought, ‘except for Friday and Saturday when your Navy is drunk.’

The Navy: Drunk but Not Drugged

On the weekends we might play football or softball, or invite a few strippers to the rehab center, and there was always alcohol involved. I was shocked at the amount of drinking allowed in a rehabilitation center. Soldiers with alcohol abuse issues weren’t discharged: in fact, it was deemed acceptable.

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) signed into law by President Richard Nixon instituted random drug testing in the military. As part of the act, marijuana was temporarily placed as a Schedule I drug — the most restrictive of all categories.

If you were in the military and you tested positive for drugs, you were sent to a military drug treatment program. For two years, I worked at the military rehab facility where I regularly discharged sailors and marines due to drug usage.

During this time, I watched the Nixon Administration ignore the recommendations from the CSA to remove marijuana as a Schedule I drug while members of the military continued to abuse other, more dangerous substances.

Coming Out of The Cannabis Closet:

Like many Navy physicians, I began moonlighting in the ER in and around Jacksonville. After working at the NDRC, I started practicing emergency medicine full-time in California.

In 1986, I came to Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, California where I became the Director of the ER.

I worked in a region with some of the highest reported marijuana usage in the country. From an emergency physician’s standpoint, it was a nonevent. I’ve never had to admit a patient due to marijuana.

The scientific research continues to show few side effects and many significant benefits. More and more physicians are recommending it. More and more patients are using it.”

In my entire 19 years at Marin General, I saw less than 10 patients that came in with complaints due to cannabis. The majority of the patients were parents. Dad wanted to be cool so he smokes a joint, and about 15 minutes later the dad notices a tightness in his chest. He can’t get enough air in, starts to breathe harder and then feels numb. He’s experiencing a typical panic attack or an anxiety reaction. So here’s dad thinking he’s having a heart attack. I reassure him that he’s not, give those patients a Valium and tell them to relax.

Based on my experience in the Navy, and my professional experience as an ER physician, I know that marijuana is the least harmful of all recreational drugs.

I retired from the ER in 2009. It was only at that time that I decided to come out of the “cannabis closet.” As a delegate of the California Medical Association, I wrote a resolution asking the association to approve legalization of marijuana for recreational use. That resolution was not adopted.dr-bedard

Instead, they acknowledged interest and decided we should further study recreational marijuana legalization. Because of that resolution, the first ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana was introduced in 2010.

Since then, the science behind cannabis has become much more clear. In June 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released an article titled “Cannabinoids for Medical Use” which concluded strong scientific evidence that cannabis is effective for treating chronic and neuropathic pain, muscle spasms and multiple other conditions.

The scientific research continues to show few side effects and many significant benefits. More and more physicians are recommending it. More and more patients are using it.

Marijuana Hospital Use Resolution

In 2016, I decided to write the resolution for the district to allow patients to use medicinal marijuana when hospitalized. I want the hospital to be the first in California to openly and transparently allow patients to use medical cannabis. If a patient is admitted and uses medicinal marijuana, they should be allowed to use it in the hospital.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) currently refuses to remove marijuana from its Schedule I category, meaning it’s classified the same as heroin and LSD. Because of the DEA’s stance, instead of introducing a hospital use resolution, on September 13, 2016 I introduced a resolution to set up a process for physicians, nurses and pharmacists at Marin General Hospital to be given free continuing medical education about medicinal cannabis. The proposal passed.

“I advocate on the use of medicinal cannabis in the hospital issue from a civil rights perspective.”

As part of the proposal, the legal and medical implications of using medicinal marijuana will be examined and reported back to the board in hopes of making policy based on the findings. Our biggest hurdle in moving forward is the current federal government: if a hospital is convicted of a federal drug crime, the hospital can lose its federal Medicare and state Medi-Cal contracts and be forced to close.

A Civil Rights/Criminal Justice Issue

I advocate on the use of medicinal cannabis in the hospital issue from a civil rights perspective.

My introduction of the Marin General Hospital Resolution, and my advocacy of the most recent recreational marijuana ballot measure — Proposition 64 — are connected to larger societal issues.

It’s a national topic, as 26 states have legalized medicinal cannabis.

Approximately 60 percent of the American population has access to medicinal marijuana on an outpatient basis. What happens if you depend on medicinal cannabis and you must enter the hospital? Millions of patients have legitimate recommendations — under state law — but they can’t use it in hospital settings.

It’s not in the best interest of the patient to continue to prohibit its use.

Dr. Larry Bedard is a retired ER physician. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for Marin Healthcare District, and actively advocates for compassionate use at the local, state and national level.