It’s already extremely difficult to get an organ transplant in the U.S. Being a cannabis patient makes it even harder.
While the tension between state and federal laws has created a difficult situation for cannabis users, there’s another factor that is complicating the changing attitude towards weed: hospitals. Though it isn’t legally mandated, many hospitals won’t allow people who use weed to be placed on organ transplant waiting lists.
In April, the Vermont House of Representatives considered a bill to address a serious problem most medical cannabis patients didn’t know they had. The bill would have prevented hospitals from disqualifying medical cannabis patients from receiving an organ transplant—a common practice, even in legal cannabis states.
Under anti-discrimination laws like the one Vermont was considering, hospitals are prevented from denying patients procedures or treatments, like organ transplants, solely on the basis that they use medical cannabis. This type of legislation has already been enacted in at least 12 other states and the District of Columbia.
In Vermont, the bill also helped to launch a broader conversation about discrimination against patients who need cannabis, something lawmakers in the state admit they didn’t even consider when drafting the state’s original medical cannabis laws. Legalizing medical cannabis “was already such a sea change that not every consideration really had been teased out or contemplated,” Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe told local news source Seven Days.
No federal guidelines currently exist for hospitals that receive patients in need of an organ transplant and test positive for cannabis use (or other drugs, including alcohol, for that matter). As a result, each hospital is left to determine their own policies for who is—and isn’t—eligible.
Currently, there is no database where patients can find hospitals that would grant them an organ transplant if they use cannabis. In some states, including those where both medical and recreational cannabis is legal, these types of hospitals don’t even exist. This leaves medical cannabis patients on their own to figure out their state’s laws and then to pick up the phone and just start calling hospitals to inquire about their policies, which vary widely and are often vague.
The state of Maine, for example, passed an act last year that requires transplant providers to treat medical cannabis use the same as any other doctor-prescribed medication. (Maine legalized recreational cannabis with a ballot measure in 2016.) But when we asked the Maine Medical Center—the only hospital in the state that performs organ transplants—whether medical cannabis patients are eligible to receive them, a Patient Service Representative at Maine Transplant Medical Center said: “At the Maine Medical Center we have zero tolerance for that.” When asked whether a patient with a special condition—such as a child who needs medical cannabis to prevent potentially fatal seizures—would be an exception, the Patient Service Representative simply replied: “zero tolerance.”
One big problem is that cannabis research is still very limited. That can lead to attitudes like the notion that cannabis users are lazy and irresponsible. Tamra Howard had to spend 20 years fighting against this cliche. A resident of Los Angeles, Howard needed a kidney in the mid-’90s. She was on dialysis and didn’t like the pain medications she was prescribed. She found that weed was far better and despite being rejected for a transplant nine times, she persisted in using the only option that would kill the pain. In 2016, one year after California passed its law legalizing medical cannabis, Howard was approved. Today, she is alive and well. Others, like Norman Smith, have not been so lucky. He died after being denied a transplant by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center because of his use of medical cannabis.