Dilemma in Tretment for Terminal Patients

Providing relief and dignity to terminally ill patients suffering from extreme pain can run into legal and bureaucratic roadblocks. SB 311 (Hueso), bipartisan legislation that recently passed the Senate, may help.  

SB 311, known as Ryan’s Law, is named for Ryan Bartell, a terminally ill patient in Seattle who found that he was often unconscious because of opioids prescribed by his doctors to deal with his pain. He wanted to spend his remaining time with his 9-year-old son and other family members, so his father had him transferred to a hospital that allowed cannabis use. Within a day, he was alert and relatively pain free. He spent his remaining weeks visiting with friends and family, not in drug-induced sleep.

Obviously, many terminally ill patients would prefer to remain awake during their last weeks, but there’s a problem. While California allows medicinal and recreational use of cannabis, many healthcare facilities rely on federal funding. Since cannabis is a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law, healthcare facilities allowing its use risk losing federal aid.

SB 311 instructs the California Department of Public Health not to enforce prohibitions against cannabis use by terminally ill patients. There is also some indication that federal authorities don’t intend to enforce these prohibitions either. Even so, similar legislation was vetoed by the Governor in 2019, who wrote that healthcare facilities “must comply with all federal laws in order to receive federal reimbursement…therefore, I begrudgingly veto this bill.”  This puts hospitals at odds with federal law - and that can be a big problem.

This bill could meet the same fate. I voted for SB 311 when it passed the Assembly Health Committee on June 8th.  Final passage seems likely, but ultimately, the Governor and the federal government will make the final decision about compassionate use of medicinal cannabis by the terminally ill.