The Outrage of Medical Pot Users Denied Organ Transplants

Patients in California, Oregon, and Washington, and other medical marijuana states have infamously and routinely been denied life-saving organ transplants solely because they use the plant. The given basis for denial of a spot on the national organ transplant list is that medical marijuana patients are substance abusers.


That reasoning fails to distinguish between marijuana as a recreational drug and medical marijuana legally used for medicinal purposes under the supervision of a doctor, and the commonplace practice predates the advent of medical marijuana, reflecting old biases and ignoring more recent research on marijuana's safety and efficacy.

Now, new research published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology suggests that not only is medical marijuana safe and effective, it could actually reduce the risk of rejection of transplanted organs. A team of scientists at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine did allogenic skin grafts on selected mice, then divided them into two groups, one receiving THC and the other a placebo. It took longer to reject the skin graft in n the mice who got the THC than in the mice that didn't .

If it works for allogenic skin grafts, it could work for organ transplants, too.

 "We are excited to demonstrate for the first time that cannabinoid receptors play an important role in the prolongation of rejection of a foreign graft by suppressing immune response in the recipient," said researcher Mitzi Nagarkatti, PhD, in a press release. "This opens up a new area of research that would lead to better approaches to prevent transplant rejection as well as to treat other inflammatory diseases."

"More and more research is identifying potential beneficial effects of substances contained in marijuana, but a major challenge has been identifying the molecular pathways involved," said John Wherry, Ph.D., deputy editor of the Leukocyte Biology. "These new studies point to important roles for the cannabinoid receptors as targets that might be exploited using approaches that refine how we think about substances derived from marijuana."

Some states are starting to catch up with the science around marijuana and organ transplants. California this year approved Assembly Bill 258, which prohibits discrimination against medical marijuana patients in the organ transplant process. That is good news, but it came only after the unnecessary deaths of people like Norman Smith.

Smith, 64, legally used medical marijuana as part of his treatment for liver cancer, but was removed from the waiting list by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after testing positive for marijuana in a drug test. Under program rules, he had to test negative for marijuana for six months before he could get back on the list, but he died before that happened.

California has taken steps to redress this iniquity, but medical marijuana patients in other states still face transplant denial and early death. It would be a cruel irony indeed if they are denied organ transplants because they use the very substance that could help avoid rejecting them. 

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