When Riley Hancey, a healthy, active young man, fell extremely ill very suddenly, he and his family couldn’t have guessed that a casual smoke sesh — combined with ill-prepared hospitals and outdated notions around cannabis use — would nearly cost him a lung transplant and his life.
Buzzfeed’s feature on Hancey’s illness and hospital policies around marijuana tells the harrowing story: The 19-year-old smoked with a friend around a Thanksgiving holiday (something he rarely did) and fell ill with pneumonia a week later. His condition worsened extremely quickly, especially for someone so young, and he was on life support in need of a double lung transplant within days.
Since it had been so recent that he smoked weed, he tested positive for THC and was denied a life-saving transplant by the University of Utah Hospital. Half a dozen other hospitals also refused to treat him, either because of cannabis use policies or that the ECMO machine needed to keep him alive wasn’t available at all hospitals.
There are no federal guidelines or laws dictating how hospitals handle cannabis users who need organ transplants. The private nonprofit organization that manages the country’s organ supply, the United Network for Organ Sharing, doesn’t have a policy regarding use of drugs or alcohol for organ recipients. So it’s left to individual hospitals to set their own rules, and if a patient is unlucky enough to end up in a facility with strict anti-cannabis policies, they’re either out of luck or forced to find an alternative medical facility and get themselves there. Now that more than half of the states in the country have legalized medical marijuana, and eight states and Washington, DC, permit recreational marijuana, hospitals that offer transplants are being forced to look at whether their rules need updating. “Just denying access to a life-saving procedure for someone who’s just using marijuana? I think that we have to rethink that policy nationally,” said Bilal Hameed, a doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, which specializes in treating patients with liver disease.
There is no widespread or commonly-acknowledged standard for treating transplant patients by hospitals. Some have a “no smoking, period” policy, while others assess risk case-by-case.
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The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania finally agreed to take Hancey’s treatment and transplant on, saving his life. He’s on his way to recovery, and his story is a lesson to healthcare professionals and policymakers: Stay ahead of the curve on cannabis reform, as it sometimes truly means the difference between life and death.
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