New Jersey bill looks to give organ transplants to medical marijuana patients

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, February 7, 2013 16:17 EDT
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A bud of finely cultivated marijuana. Photo: Flickr user eggrole, creative commons licensed.
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A bill introduced to the New Jersey legislature this week seeks to enshrine medical marijuana on a list of drugs authorized for use in soon-to-be transplant patients, resolving a legal roadblock that’s cropped up more and more often as states reform their drug policies.

The bill, A765, was put forward by Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes III (D), the state’s majority whip. He told NJ Spotlight that his legislation was inspired by an article about a man who was denied a liver transplant after using marijuana as recommended by his doctor.

Raw Story covered the plight of that very patient, Norman B. Smith, who was denied a liver transplant in 2011 and died in August 2012. He used marijuana at the recommendation of his oncologist, Dr. Steven Miles, who worked for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and had previously taken part in a study that looked at how the active ingredients in marijuana interact with liver cancers.

The transplant board at Cedars-Sinai, however, had a different opinion about marijuana’s medical necessity: they ruled it would be an unacceptable risk to give Smith a new liver due to the potential for aspergillosis, a rare infection caused by common mold spores that can grow on marijuana if it is not properly cultivated. Only one person is known to have died from inhaling spores while smoking marijuana, but transplant patients are particularly susceptible due to suppressed immune function.

The same reason was given by Cedars-Sinai when Toni Trujillo was taken off the kidney transplant list for medical marijuana use. “I felt like this was a punishment,” she told Raw Story in June. “It should have been made clear from the very beginning that I was not able to use any marijuana. I’m trying really hard to get myself in better health, but I keep on getting pushed behind… I had no idea this was wrong to be doing.”

New Jersey’s bill, which appears to be the first in the nation, is quite simple. “For the purposes of medical care, including organ transplants,” it begins, “a registered qualifying patient’s authorized use of marijuana in accordance with the [law]… shall be considered equivalent to the authorized use of any other medication used at the direction of a physician, and shall not constitute the use of an illicit substance or otherwise disqualify a qualifying patient from needed medical care.”

New Jersey’s medical marijuana program, however, is decidedly less simple. After the state legalized medical marijuana in 2010, rules put forward by Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) administration has made the process of licensing production, distribution and sales incredibly cumbersome — so much that even after all this time, there’s only one open dispensary in the whole state, and it has a waiting list that’s thousands of people long.

Photo: Flickr user eggrole, creative commons licensed.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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