It's with great regret and sadness that I report the death of Shayne Higgins, a resident of the Starr Farm Nursing Home in Burlington's New North End. According to a friend and longtime caregiver, Higgins, 49, was pronounced dead on arrival at Fletcher Allen Health Care at approximately 9:30 p.m. Sunday night, Aug. 1, due to complications related to his advanced multiple sclerosis.
I never knew Shayne before his body was ravaged by the chronic disease that finally claimed his life. Shayne was like so many of the people I've met through my work over the years. Like a smokejumper, I parachuted into the inferno that was his personal hell and stayed there for just long enough to do my job and sense the heat he endured daily, but nowhere near long enough to feel his pain.
I met Shayne in May 2006 through two of his friends, one of whom was his state-authorized medical marijuana provider. Although Shayne was one of only 29 Vermonters who, at the time, was legally permitted to use cannabis to treat his symptoms, an overly zealous staffer at the Starr Farm facility called the police in the summer of 2005 after she spied a joint among his belongings. You can read my original story about Shayne here.
File photo credit: Matthew Thorsen
Appropriately, the Burlington PD took no legal action against Shayne — Vermont's medical marijuana law had passed just two years earlier — but his health and living situation continued to worsen, in part due to a paranoid administrator who adamantly refused to allow him to smoke his pot anywhere on the facility's grounds — not in his own room, out back or even behind a dumpster. Due to the facility's federal funding stream, she feared the wrath of Medicaid, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Social Security Administration, and all the other lingering ghosts of Reefer Madness.
But somewhere in the twisted calculus, "Do no harm" was left out of the equation. Shayne's only option as a medical marijuana user was to be transported twice a week, via a handicapped-accessible van, about 45 minutes to his cannabis provider in eastern Chittenden County, not including the 10-minute process of getting him inside the house. As one might expect, the trip was anything but pleasurable for Shayne, whose body was crumpled in upon itself like a car wreck.
All that pain, hassle, staff time, expense and fossil-fuel consumption so that a young man with a terminal illness could take a few puffs off a pipe, unclench his fists, lay his head back for a moment and experience a few minutes of peace and tranquility in his own skin.
Astoundingly, Shayne maintained a positive outlook up to the end. According to his longtime friend, Beth, even in the final weeks of his life he kept telling her "I feel great," and "I feel happy."
"Why?" she asked, knowing all the suffering he's endured over the years, especially in the last year.
"Because I'm alive," he said. "I love life!"
Shayne, I'm sorry I couldn't do more to better your condition. Rest in peace, buddy.
On Tuesday, Aug. 10, the University of Vermont will host a public discussion on Vermont's current marijuana laws and efforts to decriminalize it in the Vermont Legislature. Featured guests will include Senate President Pro Tempore and Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Peter Shumlin, and State Rep. Daryl Pillsbury (I-Brattleboro). The event is sponsored by Marijuana Resolve, a Vermont nonprofit dedicated to reforming the state's cannabis laws, and the Marijuana Policy Project.
The event will be held in UVM's Ira Allen Lecture Hall, 42 University Place, Burlington, from 7 to 9 p.m. For more info, call (802) 579-1377 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.