Organ Transplant Cannabis Users
organ transplants

Garry Godfrey was denied a kidney transplant because he is a medical marijuana user. Photo:
Tareq Salahuddin

With medical marijuana permissible in 28 of the United States, attention has shifted to organ transplants, with some laws changing as a result.

The problem

In Maine in 2010, Garry Godfrey discovered that he had been taken off the waiting list for organ transplants because he uses medical marijuana. He now campaigns for a state bill that would forbid hospitals from denying transplantation purely because a patient takes cannabis for medical reasons. Arizona, California, Delaware, Illinois, New Hampshire and the not-quite-state of Washington have already taken this step.

28-year-old Godfrey uses cannabis to alleviate the pain and other symptoms that afflict him because of Alport Syndrome, a genetic condition known to lead to renal failure which has caused him to require a kidney transplant. He has partaken of many conventional drugs to no avail, but cannabis works: “It helps me function. It helps me take care of my kids.”

You could die. DIE!

But if someone’s immune system is compromised and they use cannabis, it raises the risk of aspergillosis, a lethal fungal infection, during transplantation. So Maine doesn’t support organ transplants for users but returns people to the list if they no longer indulge. This fungus is found on processed cannabis leaves, but also on some foods, decomposing plants and even in air conditioning.

Dr David Klassen, chief medical officer of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), acknowledges that problems are possible, but asks, “… how often does that really happen?” While there is a risk, organ transplants are kind of necessary. UNOS is aware of 118,000 Usonians who await transplant. Klassen describes Godfrey’s predicament as a Catch-22. Some risk certainly exists, with two Mainers having transplants and perishing due to this infection. These folk smoked cannabis; edible products may not be a problem.

You’re allowed to discriminate

While it’s illegal to deny a transplant because of a patient’s race or gender, some discrimination is allowed. As Dr. John Fung, chief of transplantation surgery and director of the University of Chicago Medicine’s Transplantation Institute, puts it, “some people say I’m not going to transplant anybody over the age 50 or 60 – they’re allowed to do that.”

Dr. James Whiting, Maine Medical Hospital’s Transplant Program’s surgical director, speaks of “a lot of local variability” in deciding who is included on or excluded from transplant lists, so someone who gets turned down can try another state. A cancer diagnosis and morbid obesity are widely accepted as grounds for exclusion. However, Dr Whiting explained that HIV was once also seen as requiring exclusion, but in the course of 10 to 15 years, opinions changed as anti-viral therapy allowed people with HIV to live longer. Dr Fung changed his mind in 1997. He knew of one young man in Ohio who took medical marijuana and was so denied transplant; he died.

Perversely, a study published recently in The Journal of Leukocyte Biology showed that cannabis could aid organ transplantation. THC delayed rejection of organs in mice. A study of more than 300 lung transplants that ran for six years found cannabis use to make no difference to survival rates.

Any change to Maine’s laws may come too late for Godfrey, but “It could make a difference in somebody else’s life, and that’s what matters.”

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