A Plea for Cannabis in Hospitals

Recreational cannabis is officially legal in the state of California. This milestone makes California the world’s largest legal cannabis market, allowing anyone over the age of twenty-one years to purchase cannabis in select retail shops. Valued at $7 billion, the California cannabis market is buzzing with new brands and products that are normalizing use and inspiring more people to try cannabis for the first time.

As a longtime cannabis user and advocate, I am thrilled that we have finally made progress diminishing the plant’s social stigma and promoting the healing benefits of the plant. However, we are now faced with a dangerous disconnect between recreational and medicinal cannabis that threatens the future of both cannabis and human health. Our fight for cannabis as medicine has only just begun.

Just because anyone in California can legally buy cannabis does not mean it is available to the people that need it most.

Two weeks ago, I spent the night in the Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City watching my partner’s father die of colon cancer. After two years of failed chemotherapy and radiation, this prominent New York City lawyer weighed 130 pounds and could no longer talk nor move. He was admitted to the hospital for the twentieth time, confined to his hospital bed for days until doctors released him. Though this patient had a medical recommendation for cannabis use in New York and vaporized THC and CBD daily to manage his pain, he could not use his medicine while he was stuck in the hospital. Instead, he was administered Fentanyl.

What if medical cannabis patients want to use cannabis instead of opioids? Impossible. The rotating nurses on call in the Intensive Care Unit told me that cannabis use is forbidden at Sloan Kettering, the top ranked cancer hospital in the nation. Even in states with established medical cannabis programs, medical cannabis patients are prohibited from using cannabis in the hospital setting.

I believe this policy is outdated, flawed and unjust. By not allowing a cancer patient, or any patient, to use cannabis in the hospital, we are denying the patient’s right to self-medicate and truly heal. This is especially unfair for the multitude of patients who have already experienced relief through regular cannabis use.

Medical cannabis recommendations are granted for people with cancer because cannabis eases the side effects of chemo and radiation, with some studies suggesting cannabinoids can make standard treatments more effective. Many of the patients admitted to the hospital are preparing for surgery, recovering from surgery, or experiencing a wide range of complications from treatment. Other patients, like the man I was visiting, are pumped of morphine to ease excruciating pain after standard treatment fails and only hospice remains.

Imagine you have cancer and cannabis is the only thing that eliminates the grueling nausea, vomiting, fatigue and pain caused by chemotherapy and radiation, but when you are admitted to the hospital for a common chemo-related complication like an infection or blockage, you are unable to use cannabis for days or sometimes weeks. This is the reality for thousands of cancer patients right now.

Prohibiting cannabis use in the hospital undermines the medical cannabis program in total. It encourages the continued use of dangerous and addictive pharmaceuticals instead of plant medicine. On an emotional level, this policy disempowers patients, robbing them of the opportunity to manage their illness on their own terms.

The first step to unlocking the power of cannabis as medicine is legitimizing cannabis use in hospitals so patients can safely use non-smoking products as needed. Thankfully, this is not a new idea. At Mayo Clinic’s hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota, medical cannabis use is permitted among patients registered with the state’s program who come in with a non-smoking product. To date, over 3,700 patients are enrolled in the program. The Minnesota Hospital Association has created a set of policy templates for other hospitals to use as they work to adopt similar cannabis use programs.

We have a long way to go. Through my research, I found one report of a dying cancer patient kicked out of USCF Hospital after she attempted to use cannabis inside. I also found a plea from the past: a 2002 op-ed in the New York Times by a New York State Judge with Stage 3 pancreatic cancer begging for medical cannabis in the hospital. He writes:

“This is not a law-and-order issue; it is a medical and a human rights issue. Being treated at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, I am receiving the absolute gold standard of medical care. But doctors cannot be expected to do what the law prohibits, even when they know it is in the best interests of their patients. When palliative care is understood as a fundamental human and medical right, marijuana for medical use should be beyond controversy.”

Cannabis is a fundamental human and medical right.

As more states work to legalize medical and recreational cannabis, we must prioritize access for sick patients before serving the recreational users looking for a “high.” California, I challenge you to use your market leadership to set a new standard for health. Let’s work together to develop a hospital use program that supports the future of cannabis as medicine for all.

Jessica Assaf3 Comments