New Jersey Lawmakers: Don’t Kick Medical Marijuana Users Off Organ Transplant Lists

Medical marijuana’s hazy legal status is a well-known flash point for tension between state and federal law. While those discrepancies tend to manifest themselves in the form of raids on suppliers and dispensaries, the conflict over medical marijuana laws doesn’t just affect business owners — it can also take a toll on Americans who use the drug for painful, chronic medical conditions such as cancer.

But New Jersey’s Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee is taking action to prevent some of those unforeseen consequences from affecting medical marijuana-using Garden State residents — specifically, to protect them from getting kicked off transplant lists due to their physician-prescribed marijuana use. On Tuesday, the panel passed S-1220, legislation that “would provide that a registered, qualifying patient’s authorized use of medical marijuana would be considered equivalent to using other prescribed medication rather than an illicit substance and therefore would not disqualify the person from needed medical care, such as an organ transplant.”

According to a press release from the bill’s co-sponsors, state Sens. Joseph Vitale (D) and Nicholas Scutari (D), the bill is a precautionary measure to prevent cases like that of a California cancer patient who was kicked off of a liver transplant list due to his medical marijuana use:

“We are hearing of cases in other states of sick and dying patients being kicked off organ transplant waiting lists for their legal use of medical marijuana,” said Senator Vitale, D-Middlesex, and Chairman of the Senate Health Committee. “This practice is unconscionable as the patients have followed their doctors’ orders and have taken a legal medication to reduce the pain and suffering associated with their illness. Transplant centers should not be able to discriminate against people for using this prescription pain killer.”

“Medical marijuana is a compassionate and humane way to manage pain and provide relief from side effects that often accompany chronic and terminal ailments,” said Senator Scutari, D-Union and Middlesex. “Our medical marijuana law is already the most restrictive in the nation with built in protections to ensure that people are using the prescribed drug as a treatment for prolonged and chronic medical conditions rather than for recreational use. The thought that someone would be denied treatment that could help cure their condition or greatly reduce their suffering because of their legal use of this prescribed drug is abhorrent. We must address this issue.”

New Jersey’s medical marijuana law is indeed the most stringent in the nation, with potency caps, restrictions limiting medical marijuana purchases to state-approved “Alternative Treatment Centers,” and the country’s first — and only — public registry of state-approved physicians who can prescribe the drug.

S-1220 may be a preventative measure, but it underlies the complexities of an issue that rests at the awkward intersection of controlled substance policy and real-world public health concerns. For instance, many medical marijuana users have to dole out hundreds of dollars per month on treatment costs since they don’t receive prescription drug benefits for their medication through health insurance. That financial toll is particularly burdensome for the most common medical cannabis users — cancer patients — who already pay exorbitant bills for chemotherapy, despite the pain relief and other medical benefits that many users have reported.

If the bill does eventually pass both New Jersey state chambers, it’s still an open question whether or not Gov. Chris Christie (R) will sign it. Christie has publicly opposed any efforts to decriminalize marijuana in his state, but has also assured cannabis advocates that he does not wish to hamstring sick and suffering Americans’ access to treatments under New Jersey’s medical marijuana law.