New Bill Could Decide Fate of Marijuana Users Awaiting Organ Transplants

Many California medical centers currently remove patients from organ transplant lists if they test positive for cannabis — even if that cannabis was prescribed as part of their treatment
Many California medical centers currently remove patients from organ transplant lists if they test positive for cannabis — even if that cannabis was prescribed as part of their treatment

Awakening each morning in pain caused by various surgeries, Yami Bolanos engages in her daily routine of relief, which she finds only with cannabis oil. A cancer survivor who underwent a liver transplant 19 years ago, she is now in need of another organ donation. But like others who use cannabis for relief, Bolanos, a 58-year-old resident of Santa Monica, has been kicked off the waiting list of potential organ recipients.

According to Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a medical marijuana advocacy organization, many patients in California have been denied organ transplants for using cannabis, even when they were doing so per their doctor's recommendation, because current California law does not protect medical marijuana users from civil discrimination, including denial of access to health care. Besides Cedars Sinai, other institutions that allegedly kick medical pot users off their waiting lists include UCLA Medical Center, Stanford Medical Center and UCSF Medical Center. (None of these hospitals have defended themselves against these allegations, silenced under the law by HIPAA, the strict federal confidentiality rules against disclosing any information on individual patient care.) Meanwhile, laws in many other states protect qualified cannabis-using patients when seeking organ transplants, including Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Washington.

A new light of hope shone this month when the California Legislature approved AB 258, the Medical Cannabis Organ Transplant Act, introduced and written by California Assembly Member Marc Levine (D-San Rafael). Since the bill passed in the Senate on June 22, many are urging California Governor Brown in an email campaign to sign the bill. He makes the decision tomorrow, June 30.

For Bolanos, who worked with ASA co-founder Don Duncan on sponsoring the bill, Brown's decision will mark the culmination of a long battle to recognize the rights of patients who use medical cannabis. Bolanos traveled to Sacramento earlier this month to fight for the bill, the first legislation of its kind introduced in the past six years. She is also president of the Greater Los Angeles Collective Association (GLACA) and has done major outreach to promote acceptance of medical marijuana in Latino communities.

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“We are very happy about this and are feeling very positive,” Bolanos says. “It’s something that should have happened a long time ago. It’s discrimination in the worst way for medical marijuana patients."

"As far as the policies are right now, I need to be 30/60/90 days clean in order to have a transplant," she adds, referring to the typical timetable over which potential organ recipients must submit to drug testing. "Soon, this discrimination will all be over. The new bill, AB 258, passed 31 to 1 ... the only person who voted against it was Joel Anderson from San Diego and people need to know that. We have already sent in postcards to the Governor and we urge others to do the same.

"When this is a law, no more people will die because they use medical marijuana. This is a triumph and Don Duncan is a genius. He is a saint. He did this on his own for the patients of California.”

More information on AB 258 can be found here. To join in the email campaign urging Gov. Brown to sign the bill, go here.

[Note: An earlier version of this article referred to the case of a marijuana-using cancer patient named Norman Smith, who allegedly died while waiting for an organ transplant after having been earlier been kicked off his hospital's recipient list. However, because of HIPAA confidentiality rules, the details of his case were never verified, and it remains unclear whether he was denied access to an organ transplant due to his cannabis use.]


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