Donating or receiving a kidney as a cannabis user

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Laws are changing that allow more flexibility to organ donor programs

For the longest time, cannabis consumers have not been allowed to be organ donors. Additionally, they weren’t able to receive an organ if they consumed. This has been detrimental to a large number of individuals, as many who are waiting – many of whom are forced to wait more than a year – for organ transplants turn to cannabis to fight pain. Fortunately, with changes in cannabis legalization, there are changes being made to organ donor programs in order to remove the restriction.

Organ donor programs in the U.S. are overseen by two groups – the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Together, they create criteria for the country’s Organ Procurement Organizations (OPO), which is a network of 58 federally-designated centers across all US states and territories.

The OPOs have a great deal of flexibility in how they manage their programs and many have chosen to list cannabis as a disqualifier. This comes despite no evidence that cannabis can cause an increase in health issues for the organ recipient. As Dr. David Klassen, the chief medical officer of UNOS, rightfully questions, “How much risk does cannabis really impose versus the benefit that the patient potentially gets from getting the transplant?”

That question led to a study of liver transplants that determined something surprising. 50% of the patients studied consumed marijuana and there was no difference in the outcome of the transplant whether the donor had or had not consumed marijuana.

The same has been shown for lung and kidney donations. In both cases, long-term studies following transplants showed that there were no noticeable differences in the outcomes – functions remained almost identical whether or not the donor had consumed.

This will hopefully open the eyes of a large number of people and open up transplant programs more. Having to wait a year to receive a replacement organ is too long and anything that can be done to reduce the time should be welcomed.