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Hospital refuses liver transplant for medical marijuana patient

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Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has denied a liver transplant to a patient with inoperable liver cancer because he uses medical marijuana. But the marijuana was prescribed by the very same hospital, according to the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA).

Sixty-three year-old Norman B. Smith was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in 2009. His oncologist at Cedars-Sinai, Dr. Steven Miles, approved of his medical marijuana use as a means to deal with the effects of chemotherapy and pain from an unrelated back surgery.

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In September 2010, Smith became eligible for a liver transplant, but after testing positive for marijuana in February he was removed from the transplant list due to non-compliance with the hospital’s substance abuse contract. Smith was within two months of receiving a transplant before he was de-listed.

He is scheduled to undergo radiation treatments in the next few days.

ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford in a letter urged the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to change its transplant eligibility policy, which ran counter to the hospital’s stated mission of “providing the highest quality patient care that modern medicine has to offer.”

“While your liver transplant policies are likely motivated by the best intentions, the decision to deny Mr. Smith eligibility for a liver transplant based solely on his compliance with California law and the advice of his physician is extremely misguided and may prove fatal,” he wrote.

In a letter sent to Smith in May, the director of Cedars-Sinai’s Liver Transplant Program said that the liver transplant center “must consider issues of substance abuse seriously since it does often play a role in the evolution of diseases that may require transplantation, and may adversely impact a new organ after a transplant.”

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But the group noted that studies have found marijuana use did not adversely affect liver transplantation.

In order to be put back on the liver transplant list, Smith is required to abstain from marijuana use for at least six months and participate in weekly substance abuse counseling over the same period. Even if he is re-listed, he will be re-added to the bottom of the list.

“ASA seeks to change this harmful and uncompassionate policy not only for Smith’s benefit, but also for the benefit of numerous other medical marijuana patients who are being made to suffer unnecessarily as a result of political ideology,” said Elford.

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In 2008, a medical marijuana patient from Seattle died after being denied a liver transplant by the University of Washington Medical Center. Less than a year later, another medical marijuana patient from Big Island died at Hilo Hospital after being denied a liver transplant.

Photo credit: Laurie Avocado

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