AUGUSTA — Members of a legislative committee were divided Thursday on a bill that would prohibit hospitals from rejecting organ donation recipients based on their use of medical marijuana.
Committee members voted 6-5 against endorsing the bill after two doctors leading Maine’s only organ transplant center explained why the program adopted a strict policy against medical marijuana use by potential kidney recipients. During the past decade, two patients at the Maine Transplant Program at Maine Medical Center – both marijuana users – died from a rare lung disease caused by a type of fungus occasionally found in marijuana, possibly because their immune systems were compromised.
“Our drug use policy, which includes the use of marijuana, is 100 percent focused on mitigating risks for transplant patients,” said Dr. John Vella, director of the Maine Transplant Center, told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “It is not now, nor has it ever been, any sort of value judgment on either medical or recreational marijuana or the patients who use it.”
The issue gained national media attention last week after Garry Godfrey of Milford told lawmakers that he was removed from the transplant list because of his use of medical marijuana, which has been legal in Maine since 1999. Godfrey, who suffers from a hereditary disease that causes kidney failure, testified that marijuana is the only drug that alleviates his symptoms, but he was told by Maine Med staff that he would have to stop using the drug to receive a transplant.
“As I saw it, I only had one choice,” Godfrey said March 27. “Marijuana made it possible for me to function daily and take care of my family. I should have never had to choose between a lifesaving organ transplant and a lifesaving medicine.”
In 2014, a national policy changed to allow individuals temporarily removed from the kidney transplant list to keep their “seniority” as long as they continue receiving dialysis. But that was not the policy in 2012, and Godfrey lost his placement on the waiting list when he was disqualified for a kidney.
The bill inspired by Godfrey’s story, L.D. 764, would have prevented Maine Med from rejecting would-be recipients based solely on their use of medical marijuana. Six other states require transplant programs to treat marijuana like any other prescribed drug, which Vella said Thursday is essentially what the Maine Transplant Program already does when it considers the benefits and risks of all medications on transplant patients. California law dictates that marijuana cannot be the sole factor in determining a patient’s candidacy, but it allows for exceptions.
“The proposed bill in Maine would be the most narrowly defined and least flexible in the country,” Vella said.
Dr. James Whiting, associate chief of surgery at the transplant center, said the two earlier deaths from pulmonary Aspergillosis – potentially contracted from fungus in marijuana – is “not an insignificant” number considering the low mortality rate among patients.
Advocates for medical marijuana users noted that marijuana is available in a host of other forms in Maine – such as concentrated liquids known as tinctures as well as edibles – that would not pose risks from fungal infections. Some medical marijuana growers are also having their products tested by laboratories to ensure patients that the medicine does not contain harmful fungus or pesticides.
In response, Whiting said he presumed the risks would be “much, much lower” with edibles but Maine Med does not have data on the risks of fungal infection from different types of medical marijuana.
“If there was data that said you could rid cannabis of the risks of fungal infection, we would be happy to abolish this policy and be done with it,” Whiting said.
Bill sponsor Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said she would like to see a policy put into statute ensuring that doctors cannot exclude a patient simply because of medical marijuana use. She and the four other lawmakers who voted in the minority Thursday are backing an amended bill adopting the language in Delaware’s law stating that medical marijuana use should not disqualify a patient from medical care, including organ transplants.
“Going forward we want to make sure that as we progress with the medical cannabis program . . . that there is not potential for bias,” Sanderson said.
L.D. 764 now goes to the full Legislature for consideration.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at: