California to push for medical cannabis in hospitals

California Lawmakers Push to Allow Medical Marijuana in Hospitals

A California state senator is sponsoring a bill to allow hospitals and healthcare facilities to let terminally ill patients use medical cannabis without jeopardizing their federal funding. After sending letters to state and federal officials inquiring about cannabis access for patients, he’s gotten calls back from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the governor of California’s office telling him they are looking into the matter.

California Sen. Ben Hueso (D), joined by 11 of his colleagues, is sponsoring the bill to clear up confusion about possible federal funding implications for permitting marijuana consumption in health facilities. Pro-legalization Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill meant to address the issue in 2019.

Hueso’s legislation was partly inspired by the experience of a father whose son died from cancer and was initially denied access to cannabis at a California hospital. Jim Bartell did eventually find a facility that agreed to allow the treatment, and he recounted that his son’s quality of life improved dramatically in those last days.

“He would sleep through the night and wake up pain-free,” Bartell told The Southern California Record. “He was talking, texting his friends and asking them to visit him. During his last two and a half weeks, he met with dozens of visitors, and he spent an hour every day talking to his son — just the two of them.”

Motivated to give other families the same right to cannabis access for their loved ones, Bartell helped craft the Compassionate Access to Medical Cannabis Act, which is being carried by Hueso.

The senator received a letter from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) several months ago stating there are no federal regulations in place that specifically address this issue, and it isn’t aware of any cases where funding has been pulled because a hospital allows patients to use medical cannabis.

“Our correspondence from CMS reaffirmed for us, and the state agencies, that we do not have to fear federal penalties in regards to cannabis use by terminally-ill patients in hospitals,” Bartell said.

Meanwhile, the senator’s letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra on the need for further clarification on federal policy seems to be catching the attention of officials.

A staffer in Hueso’s office told the Southern California Record that he “got a call from [HHS Secretary] Becerra’s office, acknowledging the letter and saying they were looking into it. He also got a call from the governor’s office, acknowledging that they’d received a letter and had forwarded it to several people in the governor’s administration.”

The senator’s bill to resolve the issue in California already passed the full Senate and one Assembly committee this session, and it’s now awaiting action on the Assembly floor before potentially being sent to Newsom’s desk.

“We are very confident that this law will be in place next year to aid patients and families in California,” Bartell said.

Ryan’s Law would require that hospitals and certain types of healthcare facilities in the State of California allow a terminally-ill patient to use medical cannabis for treatment and/or pain relief,” Hueso wrote in the July letter to state and federal officials. “Currently, whether or not medical cannabis is permitted is left up to hospital policy, and this creates issues for patients and their families who seek alternative, more natural medication options in their final days.”

Hospitals that receive CMS accreditation are generally expected to comply with local, state and federal laws in order to qualify for certain reimbursements. Because marijuana remains federally illegal, “many healthcare facilities have adopted policies prohibiting cannabis on their grounds out of a perceived risk of losing federal funding if they were to allow it,” wrote Hueso.

But the senator said the letter he got from CMS provides assurance that healthcare facilities aren’t at risk of losing federal funds for allowing cannabis use by patients. 

Additionally, because the Justice Department has been barred under annually renewed spending legislation from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state-level medical marijuana programs, he said, “we believe the risk of federal intervention is little to none.”

This piece is a part of a content-sharing arrangement between The News Station and Marijuana Moment

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE, etc.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE, etc.

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