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Marijuana stories: Patients eager to come out of shadows when law passes

New Hampshire Sunday News

July 06. 2013 9:35PM

Ted Wright's wife was wasting away before his eyes.

Ravaged by constant nausea and vomiting - the side effects from a clinical trial drug that was keeping her cancer at bay - Cindy Wright had rapidly lost more than 30 pounds.

"She couldn't eat," her husband recalled. "And they said, 'You've got to stop losing weight; we're taking you off the trial.'"

A nurse at their Boston hospital had told them other patients were getting through their treatments by using cannabis - marijuana. Desperate, the Wrights decided to try it.

"Within five minutes, she was eating the biggest meal I'd seen her eat in a year," Ted Wright said. "As soon as she felt the effects of the drug, she felt well enough to eat."

"It was just amazing. And she put the weight back on within a month and stabilized," he said. It's been two years, and "she's been stable ever since."

"That flipped a switch for me," said Wright, a Tuftonboro Republican who was elected to the House last November. "It became a crusade for me."

He co-sponsored the medical marijuana bill that is poised to become law, after both the House and Senate passed a compromise version late last month. Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she will sign the measure into law.

And once she does, the Wrights are among an unknown number of Granite Staters who will come out from the shadows of illegal drug use.

The decision to pass House Bill 573 was not taken lightly. Concerns and objections voiced by law enforcement officials and the New Hampshire Medical Society, among others, were weighed against the possible benefits.

Dr. P. Thomas Harker, president of the Medical Society, told the New Hampshire Union Leader last month that "cannabis is an unproven therapy,'' and his organization was "very concerned about the risk of diversion and the message we send to the children and adolescents of New Hampshire about cannabis.''

He added: "Smoking marijuana is clearly bad for people's lungs.''

The new law allow patients with "qualifying" medical conditions who obtain special identification cards to use cannabis for therapeutic purposes without fear of arrest, prosecution or penalty. Those conditions include cancer, HIV and AIDS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and traumatic brain injury.

Lawmakers ruled out allowing patients to grow their own plants, something law enforcement and Hassan opposed. Instead, the state health department will supervise nonprofit "alternative treatment centers" - two initially - that will distribute the drug.

The measure also would set up a Cannabis Advisory Council, to include lawmakers; medical professionals; representatives of the Attorney General's Office and the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union; health and safety officials; and members of the public, including a patient, to evaluate how the new program is working.

Wright said he's disappointed that lawmakers removed the home-grow option. He said it's safer to grow the plants oneself, to ensure they are free from substances that could harm vulnerable patients.

Still, he said he's "thrilled" that patients such as his wife will soon be able to obtain cannabis legally.

Richard Vincent of Loudon doesn't share Wright's sense of victory. "It's still kind of frustrating," he said. "They went up to the 99 yard line and that was it. No touchdown."

He wanted the home-grow option preserved. "If you grow your own, you have control," he said. "There are no pesticides or herbicides. The purity is there."

Vincent was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995; he leads an MS Society support group for patients in the Concord area. He estimates there are a "couple of hundred" folks in New Hampshire who have the disease and could benefit from medical marijuana.

He doesn't know why, but he said cannabis relieves the spasticity that accompanies the disease. "It means getting around a lot easier."

Darlene Wilson of Manchester has chronic pancreatitis, one of the "qualifying" conditions in the pending law. Her pancreas no longer functions properly to break down fats and proteins, so she struggles to maintain a proper weight.

"In the old days, they used to call it the wasting disease," she explained.

Wilson used to operate an interstate trucking business; she had to quit work when she became ill in the late 1990s. She depends on a morphine pump in her stomach to control her constant pain.

After other patients told Wilson that cannabis had relieved some of their symptoms, including severe vomiting, she decided to try it.

"The instantaneous relief that came from it was something to behold," she said.

She ingests cannabis instead of smoking it, which she said eliminates any possible cancer risks from smoking. And while opponents raise concerns about medical marijuana use leading to addiction or abuse of other drugs, Wilson calls cannabis "a life-saving drug."

She urged skeptics to "keep an open mind."

"Walk through a cancer ward," she said. "Talk to people that use it. Listen to some people's stories.

"It is a wonderful medicine, and it can do a lot of good things for people and end a lot of suffering."

Wright said he's already working on a bill to expand the law, to allow home cultivation with monitoring by law enforcement.

Here's what he wants people to understand: "For Cindy, it's been a matter of life and death."

Diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer when she was just 30 years old, his wife had battled the disease for many years. About five years ago, the cancer had spread to her bones. That's when she got into the clinical trial.

A year ago, Cindy Wright was the only patient left from the original group; the others had died from the disease or quit because of side effects.

"It was the cannabis that was keeping her on the trial and, frankly, may have saved her life," Wright said.

The trial drug was recently approved, which means his wife can get her treatments closer to home. And the legalization of medical marijuana means she won't have to stop taking the drug that is keeping her alive, he said.

Ted and Cindy Wright have been married for 21 years. Her illness meant they couldn't have children, or even adopt, but there have been other compensations, he said.

"We missed out on some things, but we've learned a lot about ourselves, and life," he said. "And we have a lot more compassion in everything we do."

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