The New Jersey Assembly has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would prevent medical-marijuana patients from being disqualified for receiving organ transplants because they are using a drug that historically was deemed illegal.

The bill would make sure hospitals and doctors don't "exclude people who are otherwise eligible for organ transplants" just because they use medical marijuana, said Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes (D., Middlesex), a prime sponsor.

New Jersey legalized medical marijuana three years ago and restricts the drug's use to people suffering from debilitating illnesses, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions. More than 900 patients are registered statewide.

The bill, cosponsored by Annette Quijano (D., Union) and Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer and Hunterdon), passed Monday on a 67-9 vote with two abstentions.

A companion bill in the state Senate has been reported out of the Health Committee and is headed to the floor for a vote.

"Now that this program is beginning to operate, it's important that we protect patients desperately in need" of transplants, Barnes said. "This will help ensure that the law cannot be misconstrued to hold these patients liable" for using a drug that is legal in only about one-third of the states.

The federal government still considers the drug illegal but has notified the states that have medical-marijuana programs that it will not prosecute when the drug is dispensed only to the sick.

Barnes said he read about a California medical-marijuana patient who was denied a liver transplant due to his use of the drug and Barnes wanted to ensure that doesn't happen in New Jersey.

The bill says that registered patients' use of marijuana is the same as using other prescribed medications and that the marijuana should not be considered an illicit substance.

"The original law was enacted to ease the suffering for patients that have not found relief through traditional means," Gusciora said. "This will help ensure that they receive the treatment they need and are not penalized."