Montana couple flees state marijuana policies, sues hospital 

On May 20, 2010, Jennifer Hoeflich was scared. She had a history of difficult pregnancies. The birth of her eldest son, now 12, had landed her in intensive care. Her second son was also premature. In 2010, it looked like her third child, a daughter, would arrive early, too. She was 30 weeks pregnant when she checked into North Valley Hospital, in Whitefish. Her contractions were coming quickly.

Before checking into the hospital, Hoeflich told her gynecologist that she was a medical marijuana patient with a valid registration card. "We'd already discussed with the doctor that, being medical marijuana patients, we didn't want to be discriminated against," says Jennifer's husband Joseph Hoeflich, who worked as a Flathead Valley medical marijuana caregiver at the time of his wife's pregnancy.

Jennifer is still so shaken by the events surrounding the birth of her third child, Joseph says, that he spoke to the Independent on her behalf. She'd used medical marijuana to help slow early contractions, he says. It also eased the post-traumatic stress disorder she sustained while hospitalized as a child. Court documents state that she was diagnosed with the disorder in 1994.

The Hoeflichs say that their gynecologist, Dr. Jennie Eckstrom of Glacier Medical Associates, in Whitefish, told them that Jennifer's medical marijuana card would be treated as a prescription and that she would not be tested for drugs. According to court records, the hospital tested her for marijuana use anyway.

The test found THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The Hoeflichs now allege that Jennifer's status as a medical marijuana patient prompted the hospital to contact the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which launched an investigation to determine whether the unborn child was jeopardized by parental abuse.

"She's got a baby in her belly," Joseph says. "It's an emergency labor. She's totally concerned for the baby's health and well-being. And they're saying, 'Even if you have a healthy baby, we're going to take it away.'"

The Hoeflichs alleged in a lawsuit, filed March 12, that the hospital caused extreme emotional distress when it took the drug test without Jennifer's permission. According to the suit, the hospital acted with reckless indifference to her health when it told Jennifer during an already "medically risky and stressful episode of her pregnancy" that it would report her marijuana use to DPHHS's Child and Family Services Division.

Jennifer and Joseph Hoeflich with their youngest child in Maine - PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSEPH HOEFLICH
  • Photo courtesy of Joseph Hoeflich
  • Jennifer and Joseph Hoeflich with their youngest child in Maine

North Valley Hospital declined to comment for this article. Eckstrom, Jennifer's doctor, did not return phone calls from the Independent.

Montana's voter-approved Medical Marijuana Act has been on shaky ground since the federal government cracked down on medical marijuana caregivers in 2011. However, the Hoeflichs' Missoula attorney, Chris Lindsey, points out that the law was still in full effect when Jennifer was hospitalized in 2010.

Montana's Medical Marijuana Act specifically stated that card holders in good standing "may not be arrested, prosecuted, or penalized in any manner..."

But, in Hoeflich's case, that law appears to have conflicted with mandatory reporting guidelines obligating health care professionals to report prenatal drug exposure to Child and Family Services.

Lindsey acknowledges those reporting guidelines can be "good policy." He says the problem is that there's not enough proof to show that marijuana is harmful to fetuses.

Jennifer did not smoke the drug. Joseph said she ingested her prescription orally, mixing it into butter or oil extract.

Some research has shown that marijuana use by an expectant mother decreases birth weight and contributes to cognitive challenges, but other scientists have criticized those studies as skewed by factors such as tobacco and alcohol use. Other research, like that conducted by Melanie C. Dreher at Rush University, has found that marijuana alleviates pregnancy's nausea and fatigue without damaging the fetus.

"The problem is, we don't know whether or not marijuana use ever affects a child," Lindsey says. "We're sort of left with wives' tales and peoples' biases."

The Hoeflichs say other medications that doctors prescribed to slow her contractions didn't work, but small amounts of cannabis did. The couple credits marijuana for helping her carry the pregnancy to full term. "She was able to stop the labor," Joseph says. "Instead of harming the baby it was, in our opinion, helping the situation."

After the baby girl was born, Child and Family Services did not pursue the case. The family filed a lawsuit against the hospital in March, however. The case is dismissed until they first attempt to resolve their claims through an administrative hearing, as is required by law. The Montana Medical Legal Panel, a group of licensed health care providers charged to vet such complaints, is slated to take up their claims Aug. 27.

The couple now lives in Maine. Among the contributing factors that they say lured them east is Maine's liberal medical marijuana laws.

Joseph says though they are required to participate in the upcoming administrative hearing, his wife remains committed to suing North Valley Hospital. The couple wants to ensure that what happened to Jennifer doesn't happen to anyone else. "What they did is wrong," he says. "They need to not do that again."

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