There's a bill sitting on Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk that could radically change end-of-life care options for some patients in California hospitals.
Senate Bill 305, which passed both chambers of the Legislature with unanimous votes last month, would prohibit health care facilities from interfering with a terminally ill patient's use of medical cannabis, giving dying patients the option of using cannabis for pain management in the hospital. Dubbed "Ryan's Law," the bill is the legacy of Ryan James Bartell, a San Diego native who died April 21, 2018, after what his obituary describes as a "brief but brave battle" with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Diagnosed in late March of 2018, by early April Bartell, a former member of the U.S Coast Guard, had deteriorated to the point where he was in constant pain and needed professional care 24 hours a day, and so was hospitalized near his Seattle home. But as the end drew near, Bartell was increasingly unconscious, or at best semi-conscious, the result of his doctors using large doses of morphine and fentanyl to keep his pain at bay.
According to news reports, he came to feel his last days of life were being stolen and he desperately wanted as much coherent time as he could to spend with his 9-year-old son. He asked his father, Jim Bartell, to find a way to get him off the painkillers. Jim Bartell then got his son transferred to a hospital that allowed cannabis use. The results were staggering. Within a day of starting a regimen with a cannabis tincture, Ryan Bartell was reportedly alert, talkative and relatively free of pain. He spent the next two weeks visiting with his son and family, and catching up with friends and relatives on the phone.
After his son's death, Jim Bartell, the president of a San Diego government public relations firm, made it his mission to make cannabis available to terminally ill patients. He lobbied state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-Chula Vista), who introduced S.B. 305 in February.
"For too long, Californians have been denied access in healthcare facilities to medical cannabis-related treatment methods, despite research demonstrating it to have innumerable benefits," Hueso said in a press release. "As a result, individuals have been subjugated to unnecessary trials of pain and suffering. This is a simple yet critical step, which will have an abundance of benefits to ensure access to compassion and pain management for terminally-ill patients in California."
The issue facing hospitals in California and elsewhere is that the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act prohibits the use of distribution of federally "controlled substances" in workplaces that receive federal funding or federal grants, which most hospitals do. Consequently, most hospitals have policies prohibiting cannabis.
After some revisions designed to mitigate potential risks for hospitals, instead of requiring health care facilities to allow patients' medical cannabis use, the law would simply prohibit health facilities from interfering. If signed by the governor, the law would allow dying patients with a valid doctor's recommendation to use cannabis in forms other than smoking or vaping in hospitals. Under the law, it would be up to patients and their families to procure the cannabis products and hospitals would be prohibited from interfering with its administration and even allowed to help if needed.
The California Hospital Association initially opposed Ryan's Law but eased its stance after lawmakers included a "safe harbor" provision that would essentially allow staff not to comply with the law if faced with a federal crackdown.
Newsom has until Oct. 11 to sign the bill into law, veto it or let it go into effect without his signature. Jim Bartell, meanwhile, has already begun pushing for similar laws in Washington and Oregon.
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