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Death of Medical Marijuana Patient Denied Organ Transplant Shines a Light on the Federal Government's Absurd Marijuana Policy

Anjuli Verma,
Drug Law Reform Project
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May 2, 2008

Timothy Garon, a 56-year old Seattle-based musician, died last night from liver failure due to hepatitis C. Like so many critically ill people in the United States, he needed an organ transplant to survive. Unfortunately, the University of Washington Medical Center decided to deny Garon a new liver. Because donated organs are in such scarce supply, patients often remain on long transplant waiting lists or are denied an organ altogether if they fail to meet certain criteria established by transplant committees. Some common reasons for denial are that alcoholic patients continue to drink, those addicted to cigarettes continue to smoke, and those addicted to illegal drugs continue to use.

But Garon was not an alcoholic or drug addict. He did not get a new liver because he used a medicine recommended by his doctor to ease severe abdominal pain, nausea and lack of appetite. Were this medicine any other pill or prescription, Garon would have likely had his new liver and a chance to live out a full life. The problem is that Garon’s medicine was marijuana. The Associated Press reported Garon’s story on April 26:

Timothy Garon’s face and arms are hauntingly skeletal, but the fluid building up in his abdomen makes the 56-year-old musician look eight months pregnant. His liver, ravaged by hepatitis C, is failing. Without a new one, his doctors tell him, he will be dead in days.

But Garon’s been refused a spot on the transplant list, largely because he has used marijuana, even though it was legally approved for medical reasons.

If Garon was legally using medical marijuana, what’s the problem? Medical marijuana is legal under Washington’s state law, but remains illegal under federal law. There’s the rub. The federal government has refused to ease its criminal prohibition on the medical use of marijuana despite the fact that twelve states have made medical marijuana legal, the vast majority (upwards of 70 percent) of the American public thinks that medical marijuana should be made legally available to patients, and the American College of Physicians recently called on the federal government to acknowledge the medical uses of marijuana and remove it from its classification as a ‘Schedule I’ drug, which subjects users to stiff criminal penalties.

When it comes to organ transplants, federal law apparently trumped state law for the University of Washington Medical Center transplant committee. While Garon’s death renders the debate between federal and state medical marijuana laws moot in his case, the conflict between state medical marijuana laws and the federal government’s stubborn and senseless devotion to all-out prohibition should not be allowed to claim another life of the hundreds of thousands of patients across the country who rely on medical marijuana to ease their suffering.

Let your representative in Congress know that you want to see a new federal approach to marijuana that allows sick and dying patients to use medical marijuana recommended by a physician without fear of criminal prosecution or other sanctions (such as being denied an organ transplant) by sending a personalized letter.

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