Patient can't use medical marijuana

August 24, 2005

Robin Palmer, Times Argus

Shayne Higgins needs a nursing home and medical marijuana to live more comfortably, but says he's been told he can't have both at the same time. According to Higgins, Burlington police seized marijuana he kept in his room at Starr Farm Nursing Center in Burlington earlier this year after someone from the nursing home called police. The drug was seized despite the fact that Higgins is a registered user of medical marijuana under the state's 2004 law.

Higgins, 44, suffers from multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed in 1998 after developing a limp in his right leg.

"Then things started to get worse and I didn't know what was going on," said Higgins, who washed dishes in Burlington restaurants but now is out of work and can only move with the aid of a wheelchair.

Until about a year ago, Higgins lived in a St. Paul Street apartment in Burlington and smoked marijuana in his apartment to help deal with the debilitating disease of the central nervous system.

"When I do smoke it, it kills lots of pain and it improves my appetite, because when you get stoned, you get the munchies," he said.

Since moving into Starr Farm Nursing Center, Higgins had kept a single marijuana cigarette tucked away with some papers.

"I just had it and I wanted to eventually go outside somewhere and smoke it, but I never got that chance," Higgins said.

Higgins said police rifled through his room until the officer found the drug and confiscated it.

Burlington police did not provide information on the incident by press time.

"They didn't charge me with anything," said Higgins, who showed the officer his medical marijuana registration card that was issued in January. "But they took it (the marijuana) and said you can't have it here. They said I couldn't have it in the nursing home. They said it's against the law to have it at the nursing home."

He added, "I didn't like it, but I didn't know what else to do."

The nursing home issued a written statement late Wednesday:

"As this situation was completely new to us, we contacted the Vermont Marijuana Registry and sought its guidance. A registry representative informed us that because our facility receives federal funds, and federal law prohibits the possession and use of marijuana, its possession and use in our facility is against the law, and therefore is strictly prohibited."

The nursing center added, "At no time have we deviated from this position. Due to resident confidentiality, we are prohibited from commenting further."

Under the 2004 state law, people who suffer from severe and persistent symptoms from diseases such as multiple sclerosis do qualify to use the drug and may possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana, two immature plants and one mature plant in a locked secure indoor space, but may not use the drug in public places, while operating a vehicle or heavy machinery, in a workplace or in a manner that endangers the health and well-being of another person.

Rep. David Zuckerman, P-Burlington, who sponsored the bill that led to the law, said the law was not specific to a nursing home.

"There's nothing in the law that would make that illegal at all," he said. "There's also nothing in the law that says the nursing home has to allow it."

Nineteen people statewide have been permitted to use marijuana under the law.

"I think it's very unfortunate for these select few people," Zuckerman said. "Clearly these individuals have crossed the threshold where organizations like the nursing home should make accommodations."

Providing accommodations shouldn't be difficult for the nursing home, he said, noting that medical marijuana users typically just take a puff or two of the drug at a time.

"It raises a question whether we need to make adjustments to the law to increase the access to use for individuals who qualify," Zuckerman said.

The Vermont Marijuana Policy Project is working to expand the state law.

Statewide Organizer Nancy Lynch has visited Higgins. She said she's worried for his health and that police have no right to confiscate his marijuana cigarette because he is a registered user and the amount falls below the state's 2-once limit.

"They had no right to take his medicine," Lynch said. "He's very, very emaciated. He just wants to be able to use marijuana. It makes him able to eat."

Since having his marijuana taken by police, Higgins, whose speech is slurred from his disease and who yawned with fatigue while speaking Wednesday, said he has not been able to get any more of the otherwise illegal drug.

"I can't find it any more," he said, noting that he can't walk. A friend gave him the marijuana that was taken by police, he said.

Higgins said he doesn't know what he'll do going forward. He is hoping to move out of the nursing home and back into an apartment.

"I don't like being in the nursing home," he said.

Most other residents there are older than he, and Higgins said he can live independently with some lesser help, such as with housework.

Contact Robin Palmer at robin.palmer@timesargus.com.


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