Medical Marijuana Users Dying for Transplants

By: Gerri L. Elder

In 1996, California voters passed the Compassionate Use Act that allows for doctors to recommend the use of marijuana to patients for medical use. The Act was clarified by a Senate bill that became law in 2003.

In 2004, California's medical marijuana program was established and patients who use medical marijuana under a doctor's recommendation are now able to register and receive identification cards to prove that they are not breaking state law by using marijuana. Marijuana use is still illegal under federal law.

Twelve other states have followed California's lead and also established medical marijuana programs. In Washington, the use of medical marijuana is legal and was used by a Seattle musician before his death. Timothy Garon died on May 1 after he was turned down for a liver transplant. Garon was denied a new liver partially because of his entirely legal use of medical marijuana. He suffered from hepatitis C and was prescribed medical marijuana to ease his symptoms. Garon was never admitted into a transplant program and was completely denied a spot in line to receive a new liver, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.

Seeing how Garon's life ended without a transplant, another critically ill patient in Washington who needs a transplant is losing hope that he will receive kidney and pancreas transplants to save his life. Jonathon Simchen is a diabetic patient who uses medical marijuana. He says that he has now been turned away from two organ transplant programs because he uses doctor-prescribed marijuana.

Simchen was in the organ transplant program at the Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, but says he was kicked out of the program when he admitted that he used medical marijuana. He then tried to enter the program at the University of Washington Medical Center, but transplant officials there also declined to let him in the program because of his legal use of marijuana.

Organ transplant programs must make tough decisions in order to ensure that they make the best use of the limited amount of donor organs that become available. Smokers, drug users and people who are likely to drink after transplants are generally systematically declined as a matter of policy. Advocates of medical marijuana use argue that these policies allow people who have done nothing wrong to die.

Douglas Hiatt is the personal injury lawyer who represented Garon and now represents Simchen. Hiatt has joined advocates of medical marijuana use in urging hospital transplant programs to adjust their policies in the wake of Garon's death. He hopes to negotiate for Simchen in order to get him on a transplant list, but realizes that he may have to file a personal injury lawsuit in order to compel a judicial review of the organ transplant programs' policies.

The United Network for Organ Sharing in Virginia oversees the nationwide organ transplant system and leaves it to individual hospitals to develop criteria for transplant candidates. According to an Associated Press report, there is no tracking of exactly how many patients are denied organ transplants and left to die because of medical marijuana use. However, pro-marijuana groups have documented a handful of cases of transplant denials due to medical marijuana use and at least two patient deaths, one in Oregon and another in California.

Because marijuana is still an illegal substance under federal law, some transplant programs classify any use of the drug as substance abuse. Other programs exclude anyone who smokes any substance from their organ donor programs. Before his death, the organ transplant committee at university hospital told Garon that they would reconsider admitting him to the program if he attended a 60-day drug rehab program.

Time ran out for Garon and is running short for Simchen too. Hiatt and Simchen may very well have to file a lawsuit and take the issue to court if there is any hope of getting Simchen accepted into an organ transplant program in time to save his life. In the meantime, the clock is ticking for Simchen and other medical marijuana users who need organ transplants.

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