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Medical Pot Patient's Condition Worsens as Home Refuses to Yield

Local Matters


Published December 27, 2006 at 4:32 p.m.

BURLINGTON - It's been nearly four months since Shayne Higgins has been able to make the half-hour trip from his home at the Starr Farm Nursing Center in Burlington to his registered medical marijuana caregiver in rural Chittenden County, and the effects are taking their toll.

Higgins, 45, suffers from the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis, a condition that has withered his limbs, stolen much of his eyesight and confined him to a wheelchair. He speaks in slow, slurred sentences and fades in and out of lucidity. His spaced-out demeanor is only partly due to the MS; mostly, it's caused by the 14 to 17 prescription drugs he takes each day to control pain, seizures and muscle spasms.

As Seven Days reported in May ["Smoked Out: Could the Feds Snuff Out a Vermonter's Medical Marijuana?" May 24], Higgins is one of only a handful of Vermonters permitted to smoke cannabis to relieve the symptoms of his degenerative illness. Under the state's medical marijuana law, people with multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS and those undergoing chemotherapy can get permission to use the herb, provided they register with the Department of Public Safety.

However, due to a conflict between state and federal marijuana laws, Starr Farm Nursing Center won't allow Higgins to keep marijuana in his private room or to smoke it anywhere on its grounds, for fear of losing federal Medicaid funding. In the summer of 2005, a nursing home staffer found a marijuana joint in Higgins' belongings and called the police. Higgins possessed a Marijuana Registry ID card, but the Burlington officer confiscated the joint anyway; no charges were filed.

Higgins' medical marijuana caregiver "Willie" reported last week that Higgins' medical condition has deteriorated, and he's "pretty much bedridden these days" and unable to leave home for his twice-weekly cannabis treatments. Instead, Willie now visits Higgins twice a week for about a half hour at a time. And, since the nursing home hasn't eased its no-pot policy, Willie must wheel Higgins to an out-of-the-way location off the premises to "do what I gotta do."

"You'd think they'd have greater things to worry about [than some poor man laying there suffering," Willie says. "It's an awful disease and wreaks havoc on his body."

A legislative remedy for Higgins isn't likely anytime soon. This session, the legislature is expected to take up the issue of medical marijuana again, but primarily in order to expand the law's coverage to other medical conditions and to revise the definition of a "mature plant." According to Rep. Dave Zuckerman (P-Burlington) who helped champion the medical marijuana law two years ago, lawmakers are considering allowing medical pot patients to have more immature plants in production, so their supply doesn't run out, forcing them to buy product on the black market.

Zuckerman adds, however, that the legislature probably can't do anything to fix Higgins' dilemma - that is, the federal government's unwillingness to recognize Vermont's medical marijuana laws and alleviate the nursing home's legal concerns.

In the meantime, Willie says that this spring he and his wife intend to start Higgins on bee venom therapy, which has shown to be beneficial to some MS patients. "He wants to do that real bad, but the nursing home says no to that one, too," Willie says. "Let them try and stop me."

» Read the full list of 2006 news updates.