Marijuana eases Manchester man's MS pain, suffering

October 13, 2005

Wilson Ring, Associated Press, Bennington Banner (VT)

For the last decade Mark Tucci has suffered from multiple sclerosis. At one point about six years ago the pain was so bad he was bedridden and the mix of 17 prescription drugs given to him by his doctors didn't seem to be making a difference.

Now, a single parent, Tucci gets his two teenage sons off to school every day, he cooks, does household chores and he drives. He lives off disability checks, the help of his church and his friends. He says his life is as normal as possible.

What made the difference? Tucci believes it is the marijuana he smokes several times a day.

Keeps weight on

The marijuana doesn't make him high, but it eases the pain. He has enough of an appetite to keep weight on. His sons, who watch their father smoke marijuana regularly, have not turned into dope heads.

"There's not a lot of glamor in smoking dope when you have advanced MS," said Tucci, 48, who worked as a chef and house painter until his disease made it impossible. "Does it take away all my pain? No. Does it take away all my spasms? No. But it does make it possible to live."

Vermont's marijuana registry law, the 10th in the nation, became law in the summer of 2004 without the signature of Gov. James Douglas. After a four-month rule-making process the law took effect a year ago.

Twenty Vermonters have completed the process and are legally able, under state law, to use marijuana to ease pain caused by their chronic illnesses.

"It's going slow," said Nancy Lynch of the Vermont Marijuana Policy Project, which pushed for years for the creation of the marijuana registry.

Reluctant to endorse

She said that as a whole the medical profession in Vermont has been reluctant to endorse the medical use of marijuana, meaning that many people with conditions eligible to use marijuana don't and many who want to learn more can't get the information they need.

Lynch said she wishes the Health Department would do more to educate health care professionals about the law. But Health Commissioner Dr. Paul Jarris said the department was in full compliance with the law. He refused to refer to the law as "medical marijuana."

"Nowhere is the term medical marijuana used in the bill," Jarris said. "That was quite deliberate. We reviewed in the testimony the scientific literature about marijuana and the determination was made by the Legislature that it was not up to a legislative branch to determine what was medicine and what was not. Marijuana is not in itself a medicine."

He said the marijuana registry law was meant as a way to help critically ill patients feel better.

"This is symptom relief. We feel tremendous compassion for these people," Jarris said. "The health care system is unable to help them. We were very clear in testimony we do not believe that marijuana, in the form in which it is used, is a medicine."

The only role in the law for the Health Department is to set up a panel of three physicians in case there is disagreement about whether a patient who would like to use marijuana suffers from one of the eligible diseases.

To date, there have been no such appeals, he said.

"We are fully compliant and are taking part in the law as intended by the Legislature," Jarris said.

A bright spot

One bright spot, from Lynch's perspective, is how helpful the Vermont Department of Public Safety, which manages the program, has been. Lynch said that many sick people were reluctant to ask the agency that includes the state police for permission to use marijuana.

The department has set up a dedicated phone line for marijuana registry calls and state police troopers can, in cases of extremely sick patients, help people through the application process.

"We are dealing with very sick people and we don't want to make them jump through any unnecessary hoops," said Max Schlueter, the director of the Vermont Criminal Information Center, which manages the registry.

From Schlueter's perspective the only problems have come when applicants have out-of-state physicians because the law requires that a patient's condition be confirmed by a Vermont-licensed doctor. But they have managed to work through that.

To be eligible to use marijuana, a patient must suffer from MS, cancer, AIDS or be HIV positive with symptoms. A physician must certify the patient is suffering from the condition and the applicant must pay a $100 application fee.

Once on the registry, a patient is entitled to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana and can have one mature and two immature marijuana plants.

A patient is also entitled to use a caregiver who can grow the marijuana on their behalf. The patient can travel with the marijuana within Vermont as long as it's carried in a locked box. It cannot be smoked in public. When a patient grows marijuana, it must be done in a locked room.

Less of a stigma

"For those who have gotten on the registry it makes them feel less stigmatized and they feel like they are not breaking the law and under state law they are not," Lynch said.

However, the possession of marijuana is still a violation of federal law, although no medical marijuana users have been prosecuted in Vermont by the federal government.

While a patient is entitled to possess a small amount of marijuana there is no provision in the law for acquiring that first seed.

Tucci, who lives with his boys in an old farmhouse not far from Route 7, was the seventh person to get a registration card. He started using marijuana to ease his symptoms long before it became legal, but he didn't do it to relieve his symptoms until after he'd tried traditional medicines for years.

He was taking 17 prescription drugs and was bedridden when he and his physician decided to wean his body from the drugs. "We made a decision, no more 'scripts. Medically there really was nothing for me. My life sucked," he said.

A powerful motivator

It was around that time that his ex-wife died of leukemia. Being able to raise his boys is another powerful motivator to stay as healthy as possible.

"Getting them through high school is my goal," he said.

It was then that a friend suggested marijuana. Now he takes four drugs and uses marijuana several times a day.

Tucci's limp is pronounced and when he walks long distances he needs a cane or a helping hand. He has a wheelchair, but he doesn't need it all time. On Thursday he was outside painting his wheelchair ramp.

"Cannabis has bought me those six years," Tucci said.

Tucci, who testified at the Statehouse several times during the yearslong effort to establish the registry, got involved in the effort after seeing an elderly MS sufferer in his doctor's office.

"It opened my eyes to all things aren't created equal. It didn't seem fair I could find medicine and she couldn't," Tucci said. His boys then urged him to get involved publicly.

Tucci said his disease was progressing and there was no telling where he would be in another five years, but for now he's doing what he needed to do.

Sometimes when he wakes up in the night and can't sleep because of pain and spasms he'll get up and smoke marijuana. He'll do it at several points during the day.

He says it helps keep him going.

"I'm beating the odds every day," Tucci said. "If I didn't do this I'd be crippled. It's not the easiest gig, but I wouldn't trade it."

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