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May 21st, 2008 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Organ Failure

Medical marijuana patients are snubbed for transplants at OHSU and Legacy.

     
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LAST KISS: Tim Garon in the hospital with his girlfriend, Leisa Bueno.
IMAGE: Elaine Thompson/AP

When Tim Garon died May 1 in a nursing center in Seattle, his body skeleton-thin, the news didn’t register a blip in Oregon.

But Garon’s death illustrates a growing problem for the 16,635 Oregonians who legally use marijuana to treat their medical symptoms.

Garon, a 56-year-old professional musician who had hepatitis C, died after a University of Washington Medical Center committee denied him a spot on a liver-transplant list. Part of their reason: Garon used medical marijuana—which is legal under Washington law.

Garon wouldn’t have fared any better in Oregon, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1999. Hospitals here refuse to perform transplants on patients who treat their severe pain, nausea and other symptoms under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program.

The state’s largest transplant program, run jointly by Oregon Health & Science University and the Portland VA Medical Center, turns away patients who use marijuana. Legacy Health System also performs kidney transplants and refuses marijuana users.

Those are the only two transplant programs in the state, leaving Oregon’s medical marijuana patients completely out in the cold.

UW Medical Center spokeswoman Clare Hagerty says medical marijuana is never the sole reason her hospital denies a transplant. She declined to speak further about Garon because of confidentiality rules.

It’s impossible to say anyone died just because they didn’t get a transplant. But at least 30 Oregonians who use medical weed have died in the past 10 years after hospitals denied them new organs, says Paul Stanford, head of the THC Foundation, a chain of medical-marijuana clinics based in Portland.

“It’s a death sentence,” says Madeline Martinez, head of the Oregon branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Most of the people have already expired because they didn’t have the transplant.”

The problem goes beyond Oregon because 12 states now have medical marijuana laws, but the federal government considers any use of marijuana illegal.

Each hospital writes its own rules on who’s allowed on the national waiting list for an organ transplant. With a constant shortage of organs, the rules have always been strict. Patients who use illegal drugs are refused because doctors say there’s a higher risk the transplant won’t work.

Yet now that pot is legal medicine, patients “are in effect thrown out...because they are following their doctor’s orders,” says Allen St. Pierre, head of NORML’s national office in Washington, D.C.

St. Pierre hasn’t heard of a single hospital in the United States that has a policy of allowing transplants for medical marijuana patients.

Those affected include Jim Klahr, a 56-year-old professional musician from Brookings. He suffers from cirrhosis and hepatitis C, and quit taking medical marijuana in 2004 to qualify for a new liver.

Meanwhile, he lives with crippling nausea that used to vanish with a single puff of smoke. “I’ve capitulated because basically I don’t have much of a choice,” says Klahr, who sits on the 11-member state Advisory Committee on Medical Marijuana.

Mike Seely, head of the transplant program at OHSU, wouldn’t say how many marijuana users have been denied access to transplants. The vast majority of medical marijuana patients who need new organs need a liver, and livers are provided only by the OHSU/VA program.

VA Hospital spokesman Mike McAleer says the VA won’t allow transplants for medical marijuana patients because under federal law, marijuana is illegal.

OHSU doctors also bar marijuana users because of medical concerns, including a higher risk of infection and pulmonary problems. Users of other illegal drugs, drinkers and even tobacco smokers are also barred from getting transplants, Seely says, but anyone can join once they pass a drug test and meet other requirements.

Dr. William Bennett, head of kidney transplants at Legacy, says those are the same reasons his program bars marijuana users. He and Seely also say patients on mind-altering drugs are less likely to stick with their treatment in the long run, leading to a higher rate of transplant failure.

Critics say those reasons are nonsense. They say pot can be manufactured to avoid infections, and can be vaporized or eaten instead of smoked to ease lung problems. They also note that other transplant patients are given mind-altering drugs like Oxycontin.

NORML may seek legislative fixes, and thinks Oregon is a natural choice. State Rep. Peter Buckley (D-Ashland), a backer of Oregon’s Medical Marijuana Program, says he’s concerned but needs more information to act.

The ACLU may file a lawsuit in Oregon or another state with medical-marijuana laws. “It really does point to how absurd and cruel the federal government’s marijuana policy has become,” says Allen Hopper, head of the ACLU’s drug-law project in San Francisco.


FACT: OHSU and the VA have performed 917 liver transplants in Portland since the program started in 1988. Legacy transplants about 90 kidneys each year.
 
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