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Originally published May 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 3, 2008 at 1:17 AM

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Is medical-marijuana use reason to deny someone an organ transplant?

The death this week of a musician who said he was denied a liver transplant because of his medical-marijuana use has highlighted a new ethical...

March for marijuana

Marijuana Liberation Day

Advocates of liberalizing marijuana laws plan to march today in Seattle from Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill to Westlake Park downtown. The march begins at 1 p.m. and speeches at Westlake Park are scheduled from 2 to 3:30 p.m. The event coincides with other similar events in as many as 200 other cities nationwide.

Source: Cascadia NORML

The death this week of a musician who said he was denied a liver transplant because of his medical-marijuana use has highlighted a new ethical consideration: Should pot use with a doctor's blessing be held against a dying patient who needs an organ transplant?

Timothy Garon, 56, used marijuana to ease the symptoms of advanced hepatitis C. Dr. Brad Roter, the physician who authorized Garon to smoke pot to alleviate nausea and abdominal pain and to stimulate his appetite — a use authorized under a Washington state law approved by voters in 1998 — said he had not known it would be such a hurdle if Garon were to need a transplant.

Garon died Thursday, one week after he said he learned from his doctor that a University of Washington Medical Center committee had again denied him a spot on the liver-transplant list.

"He said I'm going to die, with such conviction," Garon said then. "I'm not angry, I'm not mad, I'm just confused."

His death at Bailey-Boushay House, an intensive-care nursing center, was confirmed Friday by his lawyer, Douglas Hiatt, and Alisha Mark, a spokeswoman for Virginia Mason Medical Center, which operates Bailey-Boushay.

Garon, lead singer for Nearly Dan, a Steely Dan cover band, believed he contracted hepatitis by sharing needles with "speed freaks" as a teenager. In recent years, he said, pot had been the only drug he'd used. In December, he was arrested for growing marijuana.

The UW Medical Center declined to talk about Garon's case specifically, but released a statement saying: "Although medical marijuana may be an issue in rare cases, it is never the sole determinant in arriving at medical decisions about candidates for organ transplants, and whether a patient is listed. Patients with a reasonable chance of survival and a good outcome, given a variety of factors, are listed."

The statement also noted that there are about 98,000 patients waiting for organs in the United States and only 6,000 donors available.

Hiatt said Friday that UW was being "completely disingenuous" about the transplant denial: "They denied him because of medical-marijuana use," he said. "They have a shortage of organs, and they're using moral judgments to decide who gets one."

Garon had been in the hospice for two months. His doctor at Harborview Medical Center told him she wouldn't put in his paperwork for transplant consideration at UW until he avoided pot for six months, Hiatt said. The university soon offered to reconsider if he enrolled in a 60-day drug-treatment program, but his liver disease was too advanced by then for him to last that long, doctors told him. The university-hospital committee agreed to reconsider its decision, then denied him again.

Because of the scarcity of donated organs, transplant committees such as the one at the UW Medical Center have tough standards for deciding who should get them. Does a candidate have other serious health problems? Will he or she religiously take anti-rejection medicines? Is there good family support? Is the candidate likely to drink or do drugs? And what about medical marijuana authorized by a doctor?

"Most transplant centers struggle with issues of how to deal with people who are known to use marijuana, whether or not it's with a doctor's prescription," said Dr. Robert Sade, director of the Institute of Human Values in Health Care at the Medical University of South Carolina. "Marijuana, unlike alcohol, has no direct effect on the liver. It is, however, a concern ... in that it's a potential indicator of an addictive personality."

Garon's girlfriend, Leisa Bueno, of Olympia, said Garon had not used other drugs or alcohol since he was diagnosed with hepatitis in 2001.

The Virginia-based United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the nation's transplant system, leaves it to individual hospitals to develop criteria for transplant candidates. At some, people who use "illicit substances" — including medical marijuana, even in states that allow it — are rejected automatically.

At others, such as the UCLA Medical Center, patients are given a chance to reapply if they stay clean for six months. Marijuana use is illegal under federal law.

Typically, doctors don't realize that authorizing marijuana use for nausea or other disease complications may jeopardize their patient's chance for a transplant, said Peggy Stewart, a clinical social worker on the liver-transplant team at UCLA who has researched the issue.

"There needs to be some kind of national eligibility criteria so that everyone will know what the rules are," Stewart said.

The patients "are trusting their physician to do the right thing. The physician prescribes marijuana, they take the marijuana, and they are shocked that this is now the end result."

No one tracks how many patients are denied transplants over medical-marijuana use. Pro-marijuana groups have cited a handful of cases, including at least two patient deaths, in Oregon and California, since the mid- to late 1990s, when states began adopting medical-marijuana laws.

Another Seattle-area patient, Jonathan Simchen, 33, of Fife, Pierce County, said he was rejected as a kidney-transplant candidate at Virginia Mason and told by the UW that he will not be listed until he abstains from pot for six months.

Simchen said he uses marijuana to control his blood pressure and to stimulate his appetite, which is disrupted by dialysis.

Many doctors agree that using marijuana — smoking it, especially — is out of the question post-transplant. The drugs patients take to help their bodies accept a new organ increase the risk of aspergillosis, a frequently fatal infection caused by a common mold found in marijuana and tobacco.

Seattle Times staff reporter Carol M. Ostrom contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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