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Maine Man Loses Chance at Kidney Transplant for Smoking Medical Marijuana

CC0 / / Cannabis
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Maine resident Garry Godfrey spent nine years on a transplant list, waiting for a new kidney. Then he was abruptly bumped off because of a hospital policy that forbids transplants for smokers of medical marijuana.

Now Godfrey is the namesake of a Maine House of Representatives bill that would prohibit policies such as the one that took him off the transplant list. The Maine hospital that bumped Godfrey claims that they removed him from the list because there is a chance his cannabis use has given him a fungal infection.

Godfrey is afflicted with Alport Syndrome, a hereditary disease that affects one in 50,000 children. It primarily affects the kidneys, eventually causing them to fail entirely. Godfrey says his disorder also causes him nausea, anxiety and extreme pain that makes it almost impossible to go about his daily life.

"I've tried so many pharmaceuticals and none of them worked, but the medical cannabis does," Godfrey told local outlet WGME 13. "It helps me function. It helps me take care of my kids."

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Godfrey was placed on the transplant list for a new kidney in 2003 by Maine's largest hospital, Maine Medical Center (MMC). But in 2010, MMC changed their policy to deny transplants to users of medical marijuana.

Their reasoning, according to MMC spokesman Clay Holtzman? Marijuana users are at high risk for aspergillosis, a fungal infection caused by breathing the spores of an aspergillus fungus. These spores are everywhere, and most humans inhale thousands of them a day without any ill side-effects. Breathe enough of them, however, and they can become a deadly and invasive infection – especially to those with weak immune systems

Numerous studies have shown that marijuana buds often contain large quantities of aspergillus organisms. Holtzman claims that during or after a transplant, a patient's immune system is compromised. A study from the University of Pittsburgh estimates that between 9 and 17 percent of post-transplant deaths are caused by aspergillosis.

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Thus, a marijuana smoker is at high risk for aspergillosis after a transplant – but so are cigarette smokers and leaf rakers, who are not prohibited from MMC's transplant lists.

"Our Drug Use Policy currently prohibits transplant candidates from the use of prescribed or recreational marijuana by any route (inhaled, oral) due to the risk of an invasive fungal infection known as aspergillosis, which has been documented by numerous medical journals," the statement said. "For patients whose immune systems have been compromised during the transplantation process, aspergillosis can be a life-threatening infection.

Holtzman also said that patients can requalify for the transplant list once off marijuana. However, Godfrey says that he cannot function without it.

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"You should not be discriminated against for the type of medicine you choose," Godfrey told WGME. He also testified in support of a bill that would prohibit Maine hospitals like MMC from rejecting transplant patients based off their use of medical marijuana. The bill is presently in committee.

"As I saw it, I only had one choice," Godfrey told lawmakers during his testimony on Monday, 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."

It was pointed out during the deliberations that it is possible to remove aspergillus from marijuana with careful preparation, and that MMC policy does not screen organ donors for marijuana use. Should the bill pass, it would only affect MMC as it is the state's only transplant center.

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