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August 03, 2010

In Memoriam: Shayne Higgins

F-smokedout1 It's with great regret and sadness that I report the death of Shayne Higgins, a resident of the Starr Farm Nursing Home in Burlington's New North End. According to a friend and longtime caregiver, Higgins, 49, was pronounced dead on arrival at Fletcher Allen Health Care at approximately 9:30 p.m. Sunday night, Aug. 1, due to complications related to his advanced multiple sclerosis.

I never knew Shayne before his body was ravaged by the chronic disease that finally claimed his life. Shayne was like so many of the people I've met through my work over the years. Like a smokejumper, I parachuted into the inferno that was his personal hell and stayed there for just long enough to do my job and sense the heat he endured daily, but nowhere near long enough to feel his pain.

I met Shayne in May 2006 through two of his friends, one of whom was his state-authorized medical marijuana provider. Although Shayne was one of only 29 Vermonters who, at the time, was legally permitted to use cannabis to treat his symptoms, an overly zealous staffer at the Starr Farm facility called the police in the summer of 2005 after she spied a joint among his belongings. You can read my original story about Shayne here. 

File photo credit: Matthew Thorsen

Appropriately, the Burlington PD took no legal action against Shayne — Vermont's medical marijuana law had passed just two years earlier — but his health and living situation continued to worsen, in part due to a paranoid administrator who adamantly refused to allow him to smoke his pot anywhere on the facility's grounds — not in his own room, out back or even behind a dumpster. Due to the facility's federal funding stream, she feared the wrath of  Medicaid, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Social Security Administration, and all the other lingering ghosts of Reefer Madness.

But somewhere in the twisted calculus, "Do no harm" was left out of the equation. Shayne's only option as a medical marijuana user was to be transported twice a week, via a handicapped-accessible van, about 45 minutes to his cannabis provider in eastern Chittenden County, not including the 10-minute process of getting him inside the house. As one might expect, the trip was anything but pleasurable for Shayne, whose body was crumpled in upon itself like a car wreck.

All that pain, hassle, staff time, expense and fossil-fuel consumption so that a young man with a terminal illness could take a few puffs off a pipe, unclench his fists, lay his head back for a moment and experience a few minutes of peace and tranquility in his own skin.

Astoundingly, Shayne maintained a positive outlook up to the end. According to his longtime friend, Beth, even in the final weeks of his life he kept telling her  "I feel great," and  "I feel happy."

"Why?" she asked, knowing all the suffering he's endured over the years, especially in the last year.

"Because I'm alive," he said. "I love life!"

Shayne, I'm sorry I couldn't do more to better your condition. Rest in peace, buddy.


On Tuesday, Aug. 10, the University of Vermont will host a public discussion on Vermont's current marijuana laws and efforts to decriminalize it in the Vermont Legislature. Featured guests will include Senate President Pro Tempore and Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Peter Shumlin, and State Rep. Daryl Pillsbury (I-Brattleboro). The event is sponsored by Marijuana Resolve, a Vermont nonprofit dedicated to reforming the state's cannabis laws, and the Marijuana Policy Project.

The event will be held in UVM's Ira Allen Lecture Hall, 42 University Place, Burlington, from 7 to 9 p.m. For more info, call (802) 579-1377 or email [email protected]

Thank you, Ken, for posting about Shayne's passing. He was a very special person,who I was privileged to get to know back when Starr Farm called the police on him---after helping him to apply for his legal medical marijuana registry card. With the help of a few amazingly committed people--Vinnie, Beth and Mark, and through his own incredible strength, his last few years were better than they could have been. Rest in peace, Shayne.

multiple sclerosis steals your life. sometimes quick - sometimes slow. I've met hundreds of people in my 15 years of ms and medical marijuana drug policy work and very few had the courage and strength to continue trying to be productive and contribute like shayne Higgins. He allowed the press and the public along with his ridiculous struggle to use a legal medicine for his incurable, more than just painful disease. The things that poor man had to do, along w/ his caregiver, to simply smoke a joint to ease his pretty much unbearable life. I respect a lot of folks in this movement on all fronts, but, few more than my friend shayne.....R.I.P. old buddy.....mark tucci patient #77921

" . . . a paranoid administrator who adamantly refused to allow him to smoke his pot anywhere on the facility's grounds — not in his own room, out back or even behind a dumpster. Due to the facility's federal funding stream, she feared the wrath of Medicaid, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Social Security Administration, and all the other lingering ghosts of Reefer Madness."

This seems to be a very unfair criticism of the Administrator. She does not make federal law (which, by the way, in case you haven't heard, trumps state law). Whether you agree with federal policy on marijuana or not, it sounds like she was doing what she thought was necessary to protect the nursing home, which houses a lot more patients than just Mr. Higgins. You say she feared the wrath of the feds. Are you saying her fear was totally and completely unjustified? How was she to know? Doesn't she have a responsibility to other residents besides Mr. Higgins?

If you think marijuana is so great, blame the feds. Don't slam a nursing home Administrator who relies on federal funding to keep her operation going for the benefit of a lot of people. If there are specific reasons why the Administrator was way out of line here, this story certainly doesn't explain it. It just seems to slam her as if she were solely responsible for Mr. Higgins' death.

Webber, my feelings on marijuana are immaterial. In this case, there was never a question of Starr Farm Nursing Home losing its federal funding. The Burlington Police, the state's attorney and the U.S. attorney all indicated that they saw no reason whatsoever to press charges or wade into the thorny issue of state's rights versus federal supremacy, which has yet to be sorted out definitively in the courts. (By the way, one law does not "trump" the other. No where in the U.S. Constitution is the right to regulate marijuana reserved for the federal government alone. And, most drug-possession cases are adjudicated under state, not federal, law.)

Were the administrator's fears justified? Let's look at the track record of the feds going after federally funded nursing homes or comparable facilities for allowing the use of medical marijuana: Simply put, there is none. It's never happened, according to the group, Americans for Safe Access, which tracks such incidents.

Under state law, Shayne Higgins was legally allowed to possess and consume medicinal cannabis for the relief of his symptoms. He was denied that right and, arguably, his condition deteriorated as a result. I'd point you to the story of Mark Tucci, here for more on this.

Had Shayne had the tine or strength to do so, he probably would have had a good case of denial of medical care. Certainly, that would have been the case had he been denied access to his insulin, oxycodone or any other med his doctor recommended.

But Webber, let's set aside the legal and jurisdictional issues here and simply weigh what is ethically and morally the better choice. This poor man, whose condition was deteriorating, wanted relief from his symptoms in a way that harmed no one around him. it was nothing more than the cultural baggage associated with cannabis use and its association with sixties-Dead-Head-counterculture that kept Shayne from having a better quality of life.

I agree with Webber on this one. Considering this was 2006 with Big Brother Bush tapping into everyone's business, I wouldn't be so quick to judge a person who was fearful of the government. And regardless of the time period, just because it's an heroic act to stand up to the government doesn't mean it's a cowardly and unjustified act to stand down in fear of one. It sucks that he went through so much unjustified pain, but please blame the scary government, not the scared individual.

Oh, and you're a journalist, so you probably shouldn't be blaming anyone anyway.

RIP, Shayne. Thanks for this beautiful tribute, Ken.

Patients with chronic illness and pain sometimes face serious hurdles getting adequate prescription pain medication, too. The "war on drugs" paints all drug use with such a broad brush that patients suffer because doctors and clinic fear drawing unwanted DEA scrutiny--for responsible, medically-appropriate treatment of pain. Ironically, of course, all of these Rx meds are actually far more dangerous than the Evil Weed.

I'm puzzled--stunned, actually--that some in this thread seem to suggest that it's okay for us to remain "fearful of the government" and just let the Shaynes of the world suffer and die. If those charged with the patients' care won't stand up for them, I certainly hope the rest of us will. Especially journalists, Mr. B. Benchly. That's our job.

"(By the way, one law does not "trump" the other. No where in the U.S. Constitution is the right to regulate marijuana reserved for the federal government alone. And, most drug-possession cases are adjudicated under state, not federal, law.)"

Um, yes it does. This is basic civics. There's this thing in the US Constitution called the Supremacy Clause. Article VI, paragraph 2. Check it out. When a federal law and a state law are in conflict (like, you know, federal law declaring dealing in marijuana illegal and state law declaring it legal), federal law wins. The only reason states are getting away with medical marijuana dispensaries is because the Obama Administration has decided not to enforce federal law -- not because federal law wouldn't win if push came to shove. Obama could shut down the state dispensaries in a heartbeat under federal law if he wanted to.

Ask Cheryl Hanna.

Careful, Lisa. I don't think it's OK to let people suffer. In fact, I applaud the efforts of those who helped as best they could to ease Shayne's pain. I simply refuse to judge someone who acted out of fear of the government. That would be akin to calling out Vietnam draft dodgers who fled to Canada rather than stay home and protest. Don't blame the fearful, blame the feared.

As for your claim that a journalist's job is to stand up for people, I'm "puzzled and stunned" that you think so. Any journalism 101 student will tell you that a journalist's job is to be objective and balanced, to ask questions, to research, to find out facts, and to accurately report the story. If a journalist has done his/her job, you will finish reading a story and not know which side he/she is on. As soon as a journalist takes sides, it's nothing more than propaganda.

Webber, I'm familiar with the Supremacy Clause, and also the Tenth Amendment, which states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." While I'm not a lawyer or legal scholar, I suspect there's case law that defends the proposition that any law that denies someone certain fundamental rights — and I would argue that relief from chronic pain and suffering falls in that category — that law cannot pass constitutional muster. If you'd like to discuss the legal issues of federal drug policy further, please feel free to call me at the office. (802) 864-5684.

Bungalow, as someone with a journalism degree, I can tell you that the job of a journalist isn't to be "objective and balanced." Objectivity is an admirable but ultimately unobtainable goal. All humans, by their very nature, are subjective creatures, and bring to any issue their own subjective perspectives based on their life experiences, education, upbringing, racial or ethnic background, etc.

Being "balanced" doesn't mean giving every point of view the same amount of ink. If 50 people in a room say the world is flat and the other 50 say it's round, you don't give both sides equal treatment to plead their case when the facts say otherwise.

In my humble opinion, the duty of a journalist is to be accurate, thorough and fair, to go where the facts lead you and then report them honestly and without agenda. Depending upon the story and the publication, the job of a journalist is also to process and analyze those findings for readers and help them make sense of the bigger issues. Presenting an informed point of view that's based on a diligent assessment of the facts is not the same thing as propaganda, which is the distortion or deliberate omission of facts to achieve a certain goal.

In my initial reporting on Shayne Higgins, I made NUMEROUS requests to Starr Farm Nursing Home to sit down and explain their position, or alternatively, to put their legal, financial and/or ethical concerns in writing. After waiting more than a week, and within hours of my deadline, I received a one-sentence, unsigned fax from the administration.

Finally, Bungalow, I think you missed the bigger picture here: The purpose of my Blurt post wasn't to write a "news" or "feature" story about Shayne Higgins' death. This was an "In Memoriam," a personal tribute and farewell to a courageous young man whose life ended far too soon. I would hope that Seven Days readers are sophisticated enough to understand, and interpret through the author's writing style, that sometimes blog entries are personal reflections on our experiences and the people we meet.

Ultimately, that's what Seven Days is all about: people. Their lives, their stories, their personal pains and triumphs. Being good and responsible journalists doesn't mean we scrub our work of all shreds of humanity. Sometimes we like to remind our readers that we take our work personally, and choose stories that matter to us.

Thanks for writing, and for reading Seven Days.

Point taken. I do understand the difference between op-ed and news; and I think Seven Days does a great job of making that distinction in print. I just think the line is blurred a little too much on this blog. And I think, as a journalist, you should still be responsible and accountable for your words regardless of the venue lest your readers start to question your ability to be fair in other venues. Don't "suspect" there is precedent, "know" there is.

But back to my original complaint, I still think "paranoid" is an unfair description of someone in 2006 trying to follow the law, both state and federal. A year before that, in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government trumped state government with regards to medical marijuana because there was a chance (even an unlikely chance) that patients and growers could make interstate drug deals (Gonzales v. Raich). I'll see your Tenth Amendment, and I'll raise you Article I, Section 8, Clause 3! :)

And just last month (4 years later), Rutgers announced it wouldn't grow medical marijuana for the state of New Jersey (even with NJ's permission to do so) because they feared federal funding repercussions. The University of Montana made a similar announcement earlier this year. Both announcements came after the Obama administration said it wouldn't interfere with state medical marijuana laws. How can you fault one woman during the Bush regime when entire state universities are afraid of a look-the-other-way Obama administration? I think "fearful" would have been a better adjective than "paranoid." That's all.

Point taken as well, Benchly. Though "paranoid" may have seemed too strong a word, you have to admit there's quite a difference between the University of Montana or Rutgers setting up growing operations and some guy in a wheelchair with advanced MS hitting a pipe behind the dumpster.

Nevertheless, since peddling fear was the Bush administration's stock in trade, "fearful" is just as fitting an adjective.

Thanks, Ken. And I whole-heartily acknowledge the difference between 2 major universities and one guy in tiny Vermont. It's too bad this didn't turn out differently. And here's hoping that your story and tribute have opened some eyes.

@B. Benchly: On Day One of Intro to Journalism class in high school, you learn that there is no such thing as objectivity. Ken explains it above quite eloquently. Recognizing that pure objectivity is an unattainable goal is part of being a thoughtful reporter. You have to work constantly to acknowledge, understand and filter how your personal experience and perspective can affect your work.

Bluntly put, here's my opinion: Any journalist who claims to be objective is naive or lying.

Evidence? Let's look at the MSM outlet mostly louding trumpeting its objectivity: "Fair & Balanced" FOX News. And don't forget that the newspaper parroting the party line back in the USSR was Pravda, which means "truth" in Russian. Propaganda, pure and simple, in both cases.

When I say that a journalist's job is to stand up, I mean that it is our job to report stories that need to be reported. We are the Fourth Estate: an integral part of democracy's checks and balances, IMHO. In Shayne's case, the First, Second and Third Estates seem to have failed him.

Of course it's human nature to be objective, and of course journalists have to work to check their personal opinion at the door. And of course they have to report what needs to be reported. Duh. That's not my point.

My point is if a journalist has done his/her job correctly, not only will the reader not know the journalist's opinion, but both subjects in the piece will come away feeling as if they've been portrayed fairly and accurately. In a news story, if the journalist calls a subject "paranoid," the journalist is implying that the subject's fears were irrational and delusional. This is an opinion, not a fact. This is failing to check objectivity at the door. This is failing the reader. That's my point.

Thanks Ken for writing about Shayne (this week and previously) and for articulating the struggles patients go through to access to Medical Marajuana. I knew Shayne for the last 6 months of his life and witnessed dramatic benefits in relaxation for him when he received marajuana. With out any doubt this is a very helpful drug for MS patients.

I hope many people will take some time to learn the reasons why there is this struggle to decriminalize pot and become familiar with the medical benefits of its use.

I also want to send out to the ethers a Good Bye and rest well to Shayne and Thank You for being you with your toothy grin, your kindness and patience and for enjoying Neil Young with me. It has been a great pleasure knowing you! Love & Namaste- Victoria

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