Marijuana Users Being Denied Organ Transplants

A debate on marijuana and organ transplants is underway among patients, the medical community and activists for medical marijuana.

Should marijuana users be denied organ transplants when others who do not use drugs are waiting?

What about someone who is using medical marijuana under the direction of a physician?

There are, unfortunately, no clear-cut answers to these questions.

Drug abuse and transplants

Currently, almost all transplant centers include a restriction on giving organs to drug abusers. The sense of this policy is clear. Someone addicted to heroin, meth or alcohol is making a conscious choice to abuse drugs, and in doing so, is damaging his organs. Why should he get a transplant when someone else on the list is not abusing drugs?

There are other, more practical reasons for denying drug abusers new organs. If someone is actively using a damaging and harmful substance, he is not likely to be in a fit state to care for himself and his new organ after a transplant. Patients who have received a new organ need to take a regimen of medications, follow restrictions set by doctors, and follow up with appointments and procedures.

Because marijuana is an illegal drug, according to federal law, it is on the list of substances for which transplant centers will deny an organ. In terms of an organ transplant, someone who uses marijuana is treated the same way as a heroin addict.

Denials from medicinal marijuana

Both attitudes toward and policies aimed at marijuana are changing in the U.S. Voters have taken to the polls in many states to legalize the medical use of marijuana. With a doctor’s direction, patients can use pot to treat pain and certain other conditions.

In spite of its legal status in this way, some people are being denied organ transplants because of medical marijuana use. In one such case, a man needing a kidney was denied a transplant by several medical centers. Reasons included worries that he would be a future drug user because he had used cocaine in the past and used medical marijuana at the time of the request.

A woman in California needing a new liver because of inoperable cancer was denied by transplant centers because she used medical marijuana for past cancer treatments. A man in Seattle needing a liver because of Hepatitis C was also denied a transplant. He was using medical marijuana because of the disease that damaged his liver. These cases are not unique and people across the U.S. have been denied life-saving transplants for the same reason.

The case for allowing registered medical marijuana users to gain access to organ transplants seems clear: where medical marijuana is legal, patients should be treated as any others using any type of prescription drug. But what about recreational marijuana use?

Marijuana vs. heavier drugs

Many states have now voted to allow medical marijuana, and two have even legalized it as a recreational drug. Some medical ethicists make the case that recreational, occasional users of marijuana should not be denied organs, that they are different from heavy drug users and addicts.

Changes may be coming. Some states are seeing new legislation that protects marijuana users who need organ transplants. In New Jersey, for instance, a law passed that would allow medical marijuana users equal consideration for transplants. In other words, the use of the drug as medicine can no longer be a discriminating factor.

The issue is always complicated by federal law, which still recognizes marijuana, both medical and recreational, as an illegal drug. Whether other states will include legislation to protect legal users of the drug remains to be seen.

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