In his final weeks with pancreatic cancer, 42-year-old Ryan Bartell was on hospital-issued painkillers that put him to sleep for long stretches.
That is why his dad, Jim Bartell, who lives in San Diego, began looking for a hospital that would enable Ryan to use cannabis. When they found one, it was a game-changer.
“He had been awake throughout the afternoon, pain-free, speaking to friends, texting, getting visitors,” Jim Bartell remembered.
Since cannabis is illegal under federal law, doctors can not prescribe or dispense it. However, some hospitals allow individuals to use their own cannabis.
After his son’s death, Jim Bartell began pushing a lawmakers to require hospitals to let terminally ill patients who have medical cannabis cards use edibles or topicals.
“It’s my son’s legacy,” he said of the bill. “And it’s sort of been my therapy”
The California Hospital Association says they do not oppose medical cannabis, but that they are worried about legal risks. They are opposing Senate Bill 305 unless amended. The conflict with federal cannabis policy could cause a reduction of national funds for a number of hospitals.
Still, some doctors and physicians are exploring the use of cannabis to reduce nausea, stem anxiety and improve sleep for patients with cancer and other disorders. It is playing an increasing role in palliative care — a specialty that revolves around relieving stress and pain.
“I am trained to give opioids to people,” said Dr. Vincent Nguyen, who conducts the palliative care program in Hoag Hospital in Southern California. “These drugs have side effects and may impair their thinking, make them tired. … When it comes to cannabis, there are components within the plant which we are just essentially learning can help address these indicators.”
New York along with other states which have legalized medical cannabis are having similar discussions about whether to raise access to the drug in hospital settings.
Experts say it’s a part of a larger conversation about where and how cannabis may be used. Last year, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a law that would have allowed a child’s parent or guardian to administer cannabis on a school campus.
“People are becoming more open about attempting to push the envelope on where cannabis can be used,” explained An-Chi Tsou, former senior policy advisor of the state’s Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, now known as the Bureau of Cannabis Control. “But there is still a great deal of doubt, anxiety, and guilt to some degree on which it does and how it can help individuals, and whether it should truly be regulated.”
Mieko Hester-Perez became an advocate for cannabis in hospitals after watching her son suffer from autism spectrum disease and muscular dystrophy. He passed away last year.
Now the Orange County mom spends her time teaching special needs households about cannabis and working with doctors on treatment programs. She says the new bill is a massive step in the right direction.
“Physicians want to be involved,” she said. “I think this might be the first open doorway for them in order to do it.”