Medical Marijuana 2.0: The Next Steps for Vermont
BURLINGTON, Vt. — Vermont’s cannabis community reeled last month when the House finally sounded the death knell on measures to regulate recreational cannabis and home growing. Out of the chaos, however, emerged a quiet victory for medical pot users. S.14, expected to be signed by Governor Shumlin on Monday, includes (among other items) the expansion of qualifying conditions to include chronic pain and glaucoma, and reduces physician-patient wait time from six to three months.
As of April this year, there were 2,542 patients on Vermont’s medical marijuana registry. The addition of chronic pain, in particular, is an enormous step for the state and has the potential to expand the patient registry by leaps and bounds. Chronic pain, unlike severe pain, is a much broader designation and by far the most commonly diagnosed condition for which doctors recommend medical cannabis throughout the country. A recent analysis of data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that around 25.3 million adults, or 11.2 percent of the population, experience chronic pain.
“I think it’s taken way too long for the politicians and the powers that be to be all right with the idea,” said Vermont patient Mark Tucci. “You can knock your pain level down 15, 25, 30 percent. You don’t know what a benefit that is when you’re straight up dying. It takes the pain from chronic to just kind of persistent. The question of course, now, is how do patients present themselves to doctors.” Tucci, the seventh medical marijuana patient in Vermont, was an instrumental voice in the passage of the state’s first medical law in 2004.
However, as many Vermonters know, change happens slowly here. The medical community — meaning physicians in a position to recommend cannabis to their patients — will need to catch up to the new rules. For many doctors, there is a learning curve when it comes to medical cannabis. Executive Director Shayne Lynn of Champlain Valley Dispensary says that a significant part of what they do is educating doctors. “The health care community is getting more comfortable with us,” he said. “[Doctors] say, I have a patient thinking about using cannabis. Can you tell me what that means? What would they be doing, would they be smoking it?”
Many doctors are still uncomfortable recommending cannabis for fear of legal reprisal. “As a doctor you’re afraid of losing your license,” said Tucci. In Conant v. Walters, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the federal government could neither punish nor threaten a doctor merely for recommending the use of cannabis to a patient. Physicians are allowed to discuss the pros and cons of medical cannabis with any patient and recommend its use where appropriate, including putting that in writing or otherwise participating in state medical cannabis programs without fear of legal reprisal. They may not, however, provide cannabis or tell patients where or how to obtain it.
Photo: Heady Vermont