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Organ Donation

Should Patients Be Denied Organ Transplants for Using Medical Marijuana?

Maine is reviewing the law.

Nick Keppler

Rod Rolle/Getty Images

Garry Godfrey had been on Maine's waiting list for a kidney for almost ten years. One day in 2012, his transplant coordinator suddenly informed him that he was no longer eligible for a transplant. The reason? He'd been using medical marijuana to treat the painful complications of kidney failure—resulting from a hereditary condition—which had put him on the list in the first place.

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"I couldn't get out of bed and get the kids to school without medical marijuana creams," says Godfrey, a father of two. He blames dialysis. "[Without cannabis], my legs don't want to bend, and my back is stiff in the morning."

In 2009, Maine legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. A year later, the Maine Medical Center, which administers the state's transplant program, issued a policy prohibiting "the use of prescribed or recreational marijuana" by potential transplant recipients due to users' supposed risk of aspergillus, a mold that causes "farmer's lung" and grows on cannabis and other crops. (Illegal drugs were also banned. Consumption of alcohol and, in some cases, tobacco are allowed.) Now, as Maine prepares to enact the legalization of recreational pot, a lawmaker is trying to end this transplant program policy.

Invasive aspergillosis is uncommon, according to the CDC, though it "occurs primarily in immunocompromised people," such as those adjusting to an organ transplant. The CDC doesn't have exact numbers but one study conducted in the '90s suggested one or two new cases per 100,000 people develop each year.

"For us this is an issue of medical risk, not a social issue debate," says Clay Holtzman, director of communications and public affairs for the Maine Medical Center. "Our transplant program's goal is to successfully transplant as many Maine residents as we can. Taking patients off the donor list is not something we take lightly."

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Republican State Rep. Deborah Sanderson, sponsor of a bill to reverse the policy, says there are simpler, more humane ways to mitigate the risk of mold spores.

"There are ways to test vegetation for mold, and topicals and edibles would have gone through processing and would not have mold on them," she says. "You can get the same mold from raking leaves or from your compost pile. Because people who grow cannabis are very careful, I don't think a user will all of a sudden get the mold."

When Godfrey's transplant coordinator told him he was losing his place on the list, she also informed him he would get it back if he stayed off cannabis for one year.

"I tried it for a month, but I couldn't get out of bed," says Godfrey, who testified in favor of the bill.

The legalization of medical marijuana and, by ballot measure last November, recreational use in Maine has caused a flood of laws to clarify and stipulate the state's laws regarding the substance. Sanderson says she is confident she can muster enough support to pass her bill and even overcome a veto from generally anti-pot Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

"Some folks are not ready for the progress," Sanderson says, "but Maine's medical marijuana program has broad support." That should come as a relief to Godfrey—and the growing numbers of patients like him who turn to medical marijuana as a last resort to help treat chronic conditions.

"I tried everything—so many benzos, so many opioids," he says. "They didn't work. Medical marijuana made everything so easy. I need it to eat. I need it to alleviate the pain."

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