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’s why his father, Jim Bartell, who lives in San Diego, started looking for a hospital that would allow Ryan to use cannabis. When they found one, it was a game-changer.
“He was awake during the day, pain-free, talking to friends, texting, getting visitors,” Jim Bartell recalled.
Because cannabis is illegal under federal law, doctors can’t prescribe or dispense it. But some hospitals allow patients to use their own cannabis.
After his son’s death, Jim Bartell started pushing a lawmakers to require hospitals to let terminally ill patients with 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 don’t oppose medical cannabis, but that they are concerned about legal risks. They’re opposing Senate Bill 305 unless amended. The conflict with national cannabis policy could lead to a loss of federal funds for some hospitals.
Still, some doctors and nurses are exploring the use of cannabis to reduce nausea, stem anxiety and improve sleep for patients with cancer and other illnesses. It’s playing a growing role in palliative care — a specialty that revolves around alleviating pain and stress.
“I’m trained to give opioids to people,” said Dr. Vincent Nguyen, who runs the palliative care program at Hoag Hospital in Southern California. “These medications have side effects and can impair their thinking, make them drowsy. … When it comes to cannabis, there are components within the plant that we’re just basically learning can help to address these symptoms.”
New York and other states that have legalized medical cannabis are having similar conversations about whether to increase access to the drug in hospital settings.
Experts say it’s part of a larger conversation about how and where cannabis can 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 being much more open about trying to push the envelope on where cannabis can be,” said 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’s still a lot of doubt, tension, and misunderstanding to some extent on what it does and how it can help people, and whether or not it should really be regulated.”
Mieko Hester-Perez became an advocate for cannabis in hospitals after watching her son suffer from autism spectrum disorder and muscular dystrophy. He passed away last year.
Now the Orange County mom spends her time teaching special needs families about cannabis and working with doctors on treatment plans. She says the new bill is a huge step in the right direction.
“Physicians want to be involved,” she said. “I think this may be the first open door for them to be able to do it.”