One of the feathers in the cap of cannabis is that, in the history of mankind, it has never killed anyone. You know when you’re sparking up a joint that it’s never going to kill you. Yet, that safety net has been yanked out from beneath some cannabis users, of both recreational and medicinal varieties, due to an old medical regulation that blocks cannabis users from reserved spots on organ transplant waiting lists. But is there any real scientific logic to this rule? Or is it simply costing lives without purpose?
An Unknown and Unstudied Risk
As the U.S. broadens its acceptance of marijuana as a viable medication, certain medical facilities are finding themselves under fire for maintaining a hardline on a rule that has come into question. Adhered to at their personal discretions, the rule denies organ transplants under the idea that marijuana use negates a successful organ transplant. The facilities still defending the rule cite the belief that the use of cannabis, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes, increases the risk of a highly terminal fungal infection called Aspergillosis. However, speaking with CNN, chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing Dr. David Klassen admitted that the science behind this rule is far from thorough. “The thing that comes up with marijuana is the risk of pulmonary infections. Fungal infections with Aspergillosis can be an absolutely devastating complication but, you know, how often does that really happen?” questioned Dr. Klassen. “How likely is it? Those questions are less well understood.”
“You Will Die”
Whether fully understood or not, it’s enough for some medical facilities to bump expecting patients with limited time from organ transplant waiting lists. Such was the case with 19-year-old Riley Hancey, a Park City, Utah teenager who, despite his athletic lifestyle, found himself hospitalized with a life-threatening form of pneumonia. While battling the illness, Hancey’s lungs collapsed and his survival hinged on a successful double lung transplant. Doctors at the University of Utah Hospital ran a THC test on Hancey but when the test returned positive, he was removed from the transplant waiting list. “You will die,” Hancey’s father quoted to local Salt Lake City TV station KSL, recounting the doctor’s words to his teenage son. “You better get your affairs in order.”
Fortunately for Hancey, his family refused to take “you will die” for an answer and finally found a doctor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who would agree to a transplant, regardless of Hancey’s marijuana use. Thus far, the transplant has been deemed a success but Hancey is expected to remain in the care of the hospital throughout the year as he recovers. According to his father, Hancey was not a regular marijuana smoker but had smoked cannabis on Thanksgiving night while visiting with friends. This was enough for him to be considered a terminal case with no alternatives at the University of Utah Hospital.
Other Cannabis-Based Transplant Denials
Hancey’s is not an isolated incident. WGME reported on the efforts of Garry Godfrey, a man whose personal tribulations resulted in his support of a bill that would prevent hospitals from denying placement on an organ transplant list solely based on a positive THC test for medical cannabis. In 2010, Godfrey was removed from an organ transplant list in Maine for his use of medical marijuana. The same year saw medical marijuana patient Norman Smith become eligible for organ transplant from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center…until he tested positive for THC. The irony is that the same ailment that required the transplant was why he had been prescribed medical marijuana as a treatment. Regulations required Smith to successfully test for 6 consecutive months without THC before he could regain a spot on the waiting list. Tragically, Smith passed away before this could happen.
Defending Controversial Practices
The Maine Transplant Program that denied a spot on the waiting list to Godfrey has cited two examples of transplant patients who died from fungal infections following their operations. Since both patients were confirmed cannabis smokers, doctors hypothesized a connection between marijuana use and an increased chance for fungal infection. But is that really enough to deny a terminal patient a lifesaving process? This depends on the hospital. Surprisingly, there is no hard-and-fast rule and individual hospitals are permitted to operate based on their discretions. Representatives from Maine Medical Hospital have been quick to point out that this is not a decision based on lifestyle discrimination, highlighting that patients on anticoagulants are subjected to similar wait list rejections. Likewise, cancer patients and highly obese applicants are routinely denied placement on the waiting list.
Does Cannabis Actually Aid in a Successful Transplant?
If the matter weren’t complex enough, research published in the June 2015 online edition of Journal of Leukocyte Biology indicated that cannabis can actually increase the chances of a successful organ transplant. Doctors from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine performed skin grafts on mice, then administered THC to the test group and a placebo to the control group. The mice who received the placebo rejected the skin graft in a shorter amount of time than the mice who received the THC. Scientists believe this could draw parallels to the organ transplant process.
Today, hospitals in most states can still make their own choices on whether or not a cannabis user should be permitted a spot on an organ donation wait list. It’s one more reason for the DEA to get serious about lifting restrictions on government-sanctioned marijuana research. Bills offering varying degrees of protection to medical marijuana users seeking organ transplants have been successfully passed in Washington, California, Arizona, Illinois, Delaware, and New Hampshire, but as Garry Godfrey can attest, there is still plenty of room to move forward.