A handful of demonstrators gathered near Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center to protest what they claim is unfair treatment of medical marijuana patients by the hospital's parent company, Samaritan Health Services.
Samaritan officials deny the claim.
Mamie Hobbs of Albany was one of eight people who positioned themselves Wednesday on a grassy median near the entrance to the medical complex.
Sitting in a wheelchair and carrying a sign that read "Put Patients First," Hobbs said she uses marijuana to treat chronic pain from arthritis and injuries suffered in a car wreck but has to go around her Samaritan physician to get the necessary medical recommendation.
"My doctor doesn't discuss marijuana with me. He's not comfortable prescribing it," she said. "So I had to go out and find another doctor that prescribes it for me."
Samaritan Health Services is the largest health care provider in the mid-valley, with five hospitals and dozens of clinics in Benton, Linn and Lincoln counties.
Ed Glick, a former Samaritan Health nurse who organized the protest, said experiences like Hobbs' are typical of Samaritan patients who want to use cannabis for medical purposes as allowed under Oregon law.
"All I want is for Samaritan Health Services to start recognizing cannabis patients," Glick said. "They're treated like outcasts when they're not part of the problem, they're part of the answer."
Julie Manning, Samaritan's executive vice president for marketing and development, said the company does not tell its physicians how to treat their patients and has no policy against medicinal marijuana, either written or unwritten.
"We don't have a policy," insisted Manning. "Ultimately, what it really comes down to is how the individual prescriber and their patient decide to treat a particular condition."
Glick and other protesters also object to what they say is an alarming new trend: Doctors forcing Oregon Medical Marijuana Program cardholders being treated for chronic pain to choose between cannabis and painkillers, even when patients who use weed are able to reduce the amount of opiates they take.
That's a trend that goes far beyond Samaritan Health Services, according to Randy Day, the compliance officer for the Oregon Medical Board.
"The standard of care is shifting," Day said. "More and more doctors are telling their patients it's got to be one or the other."
The winter edition of the board's newsletter featured an article titled "The Pendulum of Chronic Opioid Therapy" by Dr. Barry Egener, the medical director of the Foundation for Medical Excellence.
Egener argued that the recent practice of liberally prescribing opiates for pain has gone too far and needs to be revisited. He specifically advised against the combination of marijuana and painkillers, despite the rise in state laws allowing recreational and medical use of cannabis.
"Patients should choose between marijuana and opioids," Egener wrote, "and I'm always surprised how many opt for the former."
Glick, who has written a response on behalf of the American Cannabis Nurses Association, calls Egener's advice wrongheaded and counterproductive.
Using marijuana, he insists, allows many chronic pain patients to reduce their dependence on opioids, which can be addictive and have harmful side effects. They should not be forced to choose one or the other.
"It doesn't make any sense, and it's utterly cruel," he said. "It's putting patients in an awful vise."
Glick worked for Samaritan Health Services for 15 years before being fired in 2006 when he refused to take a drug test. He says he was dismissed in retaliation for his outspoken advocacy for medical marijuana, a claim Samaritan denies.