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Dying For Pot in a MedMJ State

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The Oregon activism community, still giddy from celebrating our marijuana legalization win, was brought back down to earth with news of the passing of the great Jim Klahr.

Jim was a fixture in the Oregon medical marijuana community. Every legislative session, he could be found at the statehouse in Salem, working tirelessly to protect and expand the state’s medical marijuana program. Despite his extremely fragile personal health, Jim dedicated all the energy he had toward freeing the people who use this miraculous plant.

Sadly, that did not include himself. Jim’s liver was failing. For the ten years I’d known Jim Klahr, he was battling constant pain and never once using medical marijuana to alleviate it. Instead, he relied on the many pharmaceuticals prescribed by doctors that kept him alive, drugs that have the known side effect of being toxic to the liver.

Wait, you may be thinking, aren’t I writing about a sick person in Oregon, land of the pound-and-a-half possession and 24 plants medical marijuana limits? Why in the world would someone like Jim Klahr not get a medical marijuana recommendation, when he so clearly knew the benefits of medical marijuana and so obviously qualified for a card?

Because in Oregon and most of the states that passed medical marijuana laws in the first 10 years after California, there is no protection against discrimination by organ transplant centers against people that use cannabis medically.

I first learned about this phenomenon in the story of Tim Garon from Seattle. Tim was a professional musician who suffered liver failure. Tim consulted with doctors on his condition. One recommended he use cannabis to deal with pain, since it is non-hepatotoxic (harmful to the liver).

Unfortunately, the hospital where he was on the list to get a new liver discovered this fact and kicked him off the transplant list. See, most organ transplant programs deny new organs to those they deem to be “drug abusers.” Their rationale is that organs are rare and precious, so they shouldn’t be doled out to people who will just abuse their bodies and end up dead sooner when they could go to a person who’ll live cleanly longer. So Tim Garon was told he could abstain from marijuana for six months and then if he tested clean, he could get back on the waiting list for a liver. Tim died within the next two weeks.

Two years later, I met my friend Ganja Jon. He was born with a congenital defect of the kidneys, requiring thrice-weekly dialysis and eventual transplantation. He, too, faced the possibility of missing an organ transplant if he were detected using medical marijuana. But Jon beat the system by hustling up a prescription from his doctor from Marinol, the synthetic THC that is a legal Schedule III drug in America. He turned up positive in the drug tests, but with that little piece of paper and the fact that test couldn’t distinguish between natural and synthetic marijuana metabolites, Jon got his kidney and is thriving in Southern Oregon, making world-class hash oil for patients.

But Jim never went that route, maybe because tests are more sophisticated now and can root out the different legal and illegal metabolites, but more likely because Jim wasn’t comfortable cheating the system. I mean no disrespect to Jon; I’d cheat this Kafkaesque system, too! But the end result is that one of the most legitimate qualifying patients died this weekend having never used the medicine for which he fought so gallantly.

Jim Klahr went into the hospital shortly after our successful vote to legalize marijuana. Jim’s death shows us we have so much further to go before cannabis consumers are treated as equals by our society. Our legislature needs to pass a Jim Klahr Organ Transplant Protection Act to ensure no deserving transplant patient ever has to make the choice between medical marijuana and the chance at a new organ.

Rest in Peace, Jim Klahr, and our condolences to your family and friends on their great loss.

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