The tragic case of a 20 year old Utah man who was denied a life saving lung transplant due to marijuana in his system might have become ill from the marijuana he was smoking.
Riley Hancey, 20, had smoked marijuana with his friends on Thanksgiving and the next day fell ill with pneumonia. Three weeks later he was in the Intensive Care Unit on life support unsuccessfully battling a “rare lung infection”. A physician at the hospital, the University of Utah, allegedly refused to give Hancey the lung transplant due to his drug test showing positive for THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.
The family found “angels” at the University of Pennsylvania who offered to help their son and Hancey received a double lung transplant March 29th. Unfortunately, he died earlier this week from complications from the transplant.
The family stated their son rarely smoked pot and had been drug free for up to year before then.
This tragic case reignited the controversy of hopeful transplant recipients being denied organs due to recreational marijuana use. Marijuana has been found to many times contain contaminants including mold. One reason for organ denial is the risk of fungal infection that could occur in an a immunosuppressed patient who is being treated to prevent organ rejection.
However, did Riley come down with the “rare lung infection” because of the marijuana he smoked the day before?
This month an investigation of marijuana dispensaries in California found 90 percent of marijuana samples to contain traces of bacteria and/or fungus that shouldn’t be harmful to those with healthy immune systems, but could be dangerous to those who are immunocompromised. As a result the state’s Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation is working to finalize rules and regulations regarding the newly legalized marijuana industry. Other states are following suit.
Image from Green CulturED
The investigation occurred after a man in northern California died from a rare fungal infection related to his medicinal marijuana. Dr. Joseph Tuscano of the University of California, Davis Cancer Center observed with two of his young cancer patients, fungal superinfections that occurred after the men used medicinal marijuana for their chemotherapy-induced nausea. After combining forces with Steep Hill Laboratories in Berkeley, he found “The cannabis was contaminated with many bacteria and fungi, some of which was compatible with the infections that I saw in my patients.”
His colleague, Dr. George Thompson, a fungal expert at UC Davis, said, “Klebsiella, E.coli, Pseudomonas, Acinetobacter, these are all very serious infections for anybody in the hospital. But particularly in that population, the cancer population. ”
Now, Hancey was in good health prior to his devastating lung infection, playing sports, travelling and working at a ski resort. So it raises the question of whether his lungs were exposed to a contaminant his body couldn’t fight. The type of infection that caused his “rare pneumonia” has not been disclosed but the above pathogens listed by Dr. Thompson can all cause “rare pneumonia” unlike streptococcal bacteria and those that commonly cause community acquired pneumonia.
Some researchers suggest users should ingest the marijuana rather than smoking it, as the heat from baking marijuana treats could potentially kill off the microorganisms, that otherwise could have direct contact with the lungs during inhalation.
This is a developing story.
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Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP is a nationally syndicated radio personality on GCN Network, iHeart Radio and Board Certified Family Physician