A single vote swayed a Maine legislative committee this morning as they decided to put their support behind LD764, a bill that would protect medical marijuana patients from being removed from organ transplant waiting lists.
Members of the Health and Human Services Committee gathered in Augusta to decide the fate of LD764 last Thursday, originally voting 6-5 against its passage. Doctors in attendance testified about the possible dangers of using cannabis while recovering from an organ transplant, citing rare fungal infections that could take advantage of a depleted immune system post-surgery.
“Our drug use policy, which includes the use of marijuana, is 100 percent focused on mitigating risks for transplant patients,” explained Dr. John Vella, Director of the Maine Transplant Center. “It is not now, nor has it ever been, any sort of value judgment on either medical or recreational marijuana or the patients who use it.”
However, Maine allows lawmakers who could not be in attendance two business days to submit a vote before a final decision can be reached. I reached out to Jill LaPlante, Committee Clerk for Maine’s Health and Human Services, to follow-up on any possible last minute votes that may have been submitted. Luckily, for Maine medical cannabis patients awaiting organ transplants, two additional votes had been logged since Thursday’s initial hearing — both in favor of LD764.
Democratic Senator Ben Chipman and Republican Senator James Hamper were the two voters who saved the day for Maine’s medical marijuana community.
LD764 Voting Breakdown
Ought to Pass as Amended (For):
Frances Head (R-Bethel)
Deborah Sanderson (R-Chelsea)
James Hamper (R-Oxford)
Eric Brakey (R-Androscoggin)
Benjamin Chipman (D-Cumberland)
Richard Malaby (R-Hancock)
Paul Chace (R-Durham)
Ought Not to Pass (Against):
Colleen Madigan (D-Waterville)
Scott Hamann (D-South Portland)
Patricia Hymanson (D-York)
Joseph Perry (D-Calais)
Jennifer Parker (D-South Berwick)
Dale Denno (D-Cumberland)
Now, LD764 will move to Maine’s Senate for a vote with the full backing of the Health and Human Services Committee, a crucial show of support.
Last week, we shared Garry Godfrey’s story with you. Garry is a 32-year-old medical marijuana patient from Maine who suffers from Alport Syndrome, a “genetic condition characterized by kidney disease, hearing loss, and eye abnormalities.” Godfrey withstands near-constant pain as the result of his condition and the dialysis he must endure three times a week to complete the necessary blood work his renal system cannot. After nine years of patiently waiting on the kidney transplant list, Garry was removed without warning in 2012 when Maine Transplant Center doctors realized his known and physician-approved cannabis use was in violation of the newly updated policies barring consumption of the plant in any form — even years ahead of surgery.
“We were really disappointed when we heard the news at first, and it wasn’t until my friend called me this morning that we found out Senators Chipman and Hamper turned the vote around,” Garry Godfrey told me this morning when I reached him for comment on the swing votes. “It’s exciting, we’re very thankful the Health and Human Services Committee voted to support LD764. Now, it goes on to the full legislature, so we’ll see what happens.”
When I asked Garry if he was surprised that the side opposed to LD764 was comprised of entirely Democrats, he told me, “Not at all, that’s just the way things have gone during this 128th legislative session. They’ve been set in their ways since the start, they had already made up their mind.”
In 2014, a national policy was enacted to prevent situations like Garry’s from happening, allowing patients removed from transplant waiting lists to maintain their accrued wait time as long as they were still receiving dialysis treatment. However, the new policy wasn’t applied retroactively, so it didn’t help patients who had their time erased before 2014.
Currently, seven states protect medical marijuana patients from being denied organ transplants solely based on cannabis use. If LD764 passes, Maine will become the eighth.
Medical marijuana advocates have argued that utilizing lab testing on medical marijuana products, as well as alternative consumption methods, could prevent the issues transplant doctors warn of, but the Maine Transplant Center hasn’t seen enough research.
Dr. James Whiting, Associate Chief of Surgery for the Maine Transplant Center, told the Portland Press Herald, “If there was data that said you could rid cannabis of the risks of fungal infection, we would be happy to abolish this policy and be done with it.”
Cover Image of Dr. James Vella of the Maine Transplant Center Courtesy of the Portland Press Herald