Attempts to legalize cannabis in Vermont fell short in the Statehouse this year. But lawmakers still managed to pass reforms to the state’s drug laws, and policy makers hope an expansion of the medical marijuana registry will help combat Vermont’s opiate addiction problem.
Adam Worch was 25 when he suddenly and inexplicably lost vision in one eye. A subsequent trip to the doctor’s office led to a grim diagnosis.
“He’s like, there’s two things I think you may have to go blind suddenly: You either have a brain tumor that’s pushing on your optic nerve, or something called multiple sclerosis,” Worch says.
That was 12 years ago, and Worch, a U.S. Army veteran who moved to Montpelier in January, has since learned to cope with the sometimes debilitating effects of his MS.
He credits one treatment above all for his success.
“And what was amazing was the cannabis, 95 percent of the pains I would get disappeared,” Worch says. “It helped the pain a lot more than the narcotic pain medication that they would give me.”
Some Vermont doctors now hope cannabis can do for chronic-pain sufferers what it’s done for many people with MS. Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law earlier this month a bill that adds chronic pain to the list of conditions that make residents eligible for the state’s medical cannabis registry.
Shumlin says the move could aid the state’s fight in one of its biggest public safety battles.
“I can tell you that my hope is that a smarter medical marijuana policy for things like chronic pain will reduce the need for people in Vermont to manage pain with opiates,” Shumlin says.
For Worch, a stay-at-home dad to his 1-, 2-, and 6-year-old girls, the pain-relieving effects of cannabis were revelatory. Doctors had for years prescribed high doses of powerful narcotic painkillers to ease the acute neuropathic pain in his legs.
When Worch realized he had to consume those drugs every day, even if he didn’t need them for pain, to avoid going into withdrawal, he realized something had to change.
“I came to the conclusion that this is not something I could do for the next 30 to 40 years,” Worch says.
A friend suggested he try using cannabis, a treatment shown to be particularly effective for people with multiple sclerosis. Worch lived in Pennsylvania at the time, a state without a medical cannabis law. However, he was able to acquire cannabis on the black market. Worch says it worked better than he could have imagined.
Chronic pain is an entirely different condition from MS. But Dr. Kalev Freeman, an emergency room physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center, says evidence for the effectiveness of cannabis as a treatment for chronic pain is building.
“Patients are substituting opioids with medical cannabis. And to us, this represents a big improvement,” Freeman says.
It’s unclear at this point how many chronic pain sufferers will join the medical cannabis registry as a result of the new expansion. Patients need a doctor to approve their access for medical cannabis before they become eligible to purchase it legally at one of the state’s dispensaries.
Freeman says using cannabis instead of Percocet, Vicodin, and other powerful narcotics now used to treat pain could begin to undo some of the harmful downstream effects of opioid prescriptions.
Freeman is careful to note that cannabis, like most any drug, carries unwanted side effects.
“But unlike the opioids we don’t see lethal overdoses with this substance,” Freeman says. Freeman says the new legislation will also allow for more scientific research into the pain-relieving qualities of cannabis.
Lawmakers this year tweaked other aspects of the medical cannabis law as well. Patients formerly needed to have a six-month relationship with a Vermont doctor before they could become eligible for the registry. That was a particularly problematic hurdle for new arrivals like Worch, who’s had MS for more than a decade, but who struggled to find a new doctor once he arrived in Vermont.
“Here I am six months later, I still don’t have my card,” Worch says.
The law now requires only a three-month relationship. Worch says no wait at all would be ideal. But he says he’s thankful that with the new changes, he should have legal access to medical cannabis by July.