The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the governor of California’s office are looking into whether hospitals and other health care facilities in legal-marijuana states can allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis without jeopardizing federal funding. The moves come in response to a request from a state lawmaker who is pursuing legislation on the issue.
California Senator Ben Hueso (D) is sponsoring a bill meant to codify that California hospitals can permit such treatment. And after he sent letters to state and federal officials last month inquiring about cannabis access for patients, he’s received calls from representatives of both HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Governor Gavin Newsom (D) saying that their offices were looking into the matter, according to a local media outlet.
Confusion about possible federal funding implications for permitting marijuana consumption in health facilities led pro-legalization Newsom to veto a prior bill meant to address the issue in 2019.
“He would sleep through the night and wake up pain-free.”
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 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 that there are no federal regulations in place that specifically address this issue and that 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 told Marijuana Moment.
Meanwhile, the senator’s letter to 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 staffer said.
The senator’s bill to resolve the issue in California already passed the full Senate and one Assembly committee this session. It’s now awaiting action on the Assembly floor before potentially being sent to Gov. 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.
“Currently, whether or not medical cannabis is permitted is left up to hospital policy, and this creates issues for patients and their families.”
“Ryan’s Law would require that hospitals and certain types of health care 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. And so, because marijuana remains federally illegal, “many health care facilities have adopted policies prohibiting cannabis on their grounds out of a perceived risk of losing federal funding if they were to allow it.”
But the senator said the letter he got from CMS provides assurance that health care 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.”
Becerra, while previously serving as California attorney general and as a member of Congress, demonstrated a track record of supporting marijuana law reform.
A cannabis advisor for Newsom did not respond to a request for comment for this story.