Vermont marijuana legalization activist Sandy Ward, of South Burlington, died on September 3, 2011 after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. She was 52.
I met Ward just weeks before she died while working on this Seven Days story about Vermont's medical marijuana dispensary law, which was signed in June by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Ward, who was on the state's medical marijuana registry, bemoaned the fact that Vermont's four nonprofit marijuana dispensaries won't be up and running before July 1, 2012. Ordinarily, a one-year lead time for a new law to take effect isn't a big deal. But Ward argued that for chronically ill patients on the registry who suffer from HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, chronic wasting or end-stage cancer, a one year can be the difference between life and death — in her case, the latter.
In the 1998 election, Ward ran for attorney general on the pro-legalization Grassroots Party of Vermont ticket and won 8.8 percent of the vote. She ran again in 2000 on the same platform and garnered almost 15 percent of the vote.
As I noted in the August story, Sandy Ward wasn't exactly the picture-perfect poster child for Vermont's medical marijuana movement. On September 29, 1988, she and her then-husband were busted in Underhill by state and federal law enforcement for running an indoor pot-growing operation that netted 84 mature plants. According to Ward, her ex-husband's former "mentor" became a confidential informant after his own grow operation was raided by police.
In 2006, Ward attended a public hearing of the House Committee on Government Operations, where she casually displayed a vial of weed to make a point — then ended up spending a night in jail for it.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Ward admitted, her pot-growing activities were strictly for profit and recreational use. It wasn't until she was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 2010 — she was a cigarette smoker for 35 years — that she turned to cannabis to relieve the pain she suffered from the tumor growing in her right lung. For a time, she tried "conventional" painkillers but hated their effects on her.
"They tried to dope me up, but I’m not a dope girl. I’m a pot girl," she told me.
LIke other patients I've met on Vermont's medical marijuana registry, Ward had no health insurance and struggled each day to make ends meet. When she and I met for an interview in August, she was living in a dark and cramped motel room in South Burlington, thanks to support from Women Helping Battered Women, and struggling to get by on $721 per month. Physically unable to work since January 2010, she'd burned through her entire life savings in Colorado, where she went to obtain an oral THC tincture that eased her pain.
Divorced and with one adult daughter who also lives in South Burlington, Sandy spent much of her final days alone. On the day we met, she was skeletally thin, her ropey arms crisscrossed with veins, her breathing labored by asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. At any moment she seemed on the verge of breaking into a coughing fit that would leave her coughing up blood.
Yet despite her dire medical condition, Sandy laughed often and easily, which belied the seriousness of her illness. At times, it seemed a nervous, almost desperate laughter. In several emails she expressed her fear of ending up homeless or in jail — dismal concerns for someone to wrestle with in her final days of life. Little wonder that, according to her daughter, Atalie Wells, she developed an interest at the end of her life in becoming active in public housing issues.
Sadly, Sandy never got the chance. According to her daughter, she suffered a collapsed lung several weeks ago and "just went downhill from there." She died in her motel room, surrounded by several family members, who remembered her for her love of music, dancing and laughter. A private memorial service was held for her on Saturday, September 10.
According to her longtime friend, Lynn Appleby, Sandy Ward's death was also announced at the annual Hempstalk Festival in Portland, Oregon on Sept. 10 and 11, which advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana for medicinal, industrial, and recreational use. There, says Appleby, "approximately 6000 people puffed in her honor."