Organ Transplant Centers Discriminate Against Medical Marijuana Patients

May 13, 2010

Case Western, discrimination, hepatitis, liver, Michigan, Oregon, Oregon Health and Science University, organ transplant, OSHU, Portland Tribune, Timothy Garon, Washington

Doctors at Oregon’s two organ transplant centers will not provide organs to people who have marijuana compounds in their blood, even if they are legal medical marijuana patients, The Portland Tribune reports today.

This restriction has had dire consequences for patients like Jim Klahr, a Portland medical marijuana patient who suffers from hepatitis and cirrhosis, but hasn’t been able to take his medicine since 2004 because he’s on the waiting list for a liver transplant at Oregon Health and Science University and wants to remain eligible.

A director at OSHU defended such discrimination by saying medical marijuana is still illegal under federal law and that doctors are afraid of fungal infections in patients who use marijuana.

But those fears are baseless, says Stuart Youngner of Case Western Reserve University, a major transplant center. “This is unconscionable,” he told the Tribune,  “unless they have good medical evidence that there’s a significant risk to the transplant, (or) that it makes a recipient a poor steward of the organ.”

According to the Tribune:

“Years ago, Michigan surgeons discovered about 10 percent of transplant patients had marijuana compounds in their blood. The surgeons provided livers to many of the marijuana smokers anyway and then followed them post-surgery and found that they did as well as non-smoking patients.”

As it turns out, according to one of those surgeons, marijuana use does not matter all that much in organ transplants. What matters is how well the patient takes care of their body. This related 2009 Michigan study found that "patients who did and did not use marijuana had similar survival rates."

An official at one of the discriminating centers said he didn’t think such a harsh policy was costing lives -- but sadly he may be wrong. Two years ago in Washington state, 56-year-old Timothy Garon died after being denied a liver transplant. He had twice been denied the operation because he legally used doctor-approved medical marijuana to combat the symptoms of advanced hepatitis C.

Those Oregon centers need to understand that patients can’t be discriminated against because of their condition and the treatments that doctors find work best for them. More importantly, they need to end their senseless ban on transplants for medical marijuana patients before a similar tragedy occurs in Oregon, if it hasn’t already.