In Oregon, a bill has been proposed that would bar organ transplant center from restricting transplants to patients based on their use of medical marijuana. House Bill 2687 would help clear the path to a transplant for patients currently using cannabis to deal with chronic pain and other conditions—but critics say it would create unsafe conditions for health care, particularly given the scarcity of organs currently available for transplant.
The bill is sponsored by Portland representative Rob Nosse. He says it was inspired by the Oregon House Committee on Health Care testimony of a woman who is banned from being her husband’s organ donor because he uses cannabis.
Robin Socherman testified that her partner Jake takes medical marijuana to deal with lower back pain caused from his polycystic kidney disease. When he was referred for a transplant, the family discovered he was ineligible due to his six years of medical marijuana use.
“The transplant center was clear that while my husband would not be allowed to use his medical cannabis, he was free to use opiates,” Socherman testified. “This seems irrational, considering the current opiate crises in our state and nation.”
“The medical doctor shamed us and treated my husband like a street junkie, telling us how disappointed he was that my husband was a drug user,” she continued. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Oregon is far from the only state that has faced the issue of potential organ transplant candidates who have been taken off the waitlist due to medical marijuana use. California and Maine are among the places that have also grappled with the issue.
But hospitals have bridled at HB 2687’s introduction, saying that there are already far too few available organs for the number of people waiting for transplant. In Oregon, 340 transplants were performed last year, but there are 850 people currently on the waiting list to receive an organ. In the United States, 36,500 organ transplants were performed last year, but 114,000 patients are on the waitlist.
Legacy Transplant Services medical director William Bennet commented in a letter to legislators that the bill, “attempts to legislate unsafe standards of care for transplant medicine.”
Bennet continued, “The consequences of marijuana in kidney transplant recipients are well-known and the adverse effects of marijuana have been well characterized in recent publications.” The medical director said that while patients aren’t disqualified from receiving a transplant because they are a medical marijuana patient, they are restricted from using cannabis because of the risks the practice can involve, which can include damage to cardiovascular health and lack of exactitude in treatment; “crude marijuana is unregulated in that the potency and dose are variable and thus do not meet FDA requirements for an approved drug,” he wrote.
“No transplant candidates are turned away from the OHSU Transplant Program because they use marijuana,” Tamara Hargens-Bradley, spokeswoman for Oregon Health Science University, commented to the Statesman Journal. But, she continued, “a patient who meets the criteria for substance abuse disorder, and does not follow through with recommendations set forth by our selection committee, could be turned down for a transplant.”