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September 14, 2011

In Memoriam: Marijuana Legalization Activist Sandy Ward

Sandy Ward,jpg Vermont marijuana legalization activist Sandy Ward, of South Burlington, died on September 3, 2011 after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. She was 52.

I met Ward just weeks before she died while working on this Seven Days story about Vermont's medical marijuana dispensary law, which was signed in June by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Ward, who was on the state's medical marijuana registry, bemoaned the fact that Vermont's four nonprofit marijuana dispensaries won't be up and running before July 1, 2012. Ordinarily, a one-year lead time for a new law to take effect isn't a big deal. But Ward argued that for chronically ill patients on the registry who suffer from HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, chronic wasting or end-stage cancer, a one year can be the difference between life and death — in her case, the latter.

In the 1998 election, Ward ran for attorney general on the pro-legalization Grassroots Party of Vermont ticket and won 8.8 percent of the vote. She ran again in 2000 on the same platform and garnered almost 15 percent of the vote.

As I noted in the August story, Sandy Ward wasn't exactly the picture-perfect poster child for Vermont's medical marijuana movement. On September 29, 1988, she and her then-husband were busted in Underhill by state and federal law enforcement for running an indoor pot-growing operation that netted 84 mature plants. According to Ward, her ex-husband's former "mentor" became a confidential informant after his own grow operation was raided by police.

In 2006, Ward attended a public hearing of the House Committee on Government Operations, where she casually displayed a vial of weed to make a point — then ended up spending a night in jail for it.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Ward admitted, her pot-growing activities were strictly for profit and recreational use. It wasn't until she was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 2010 — she was a cigarette smoker for 35 years — that she turned to cannabis to relieve the pain she suffered from the tumor growing in her right lung. For a time, she tried "conventional" painkillers but hated their effects on her.

"They tried to dope me up, but I’m not a dope girl. I’m a pot girl," she told me.

LIke other patients I've met on Vermont's medical marijuana registry, Ward had no health insurance and struggled each day to make ends meet. When she and I met for an interview in August, she was living in a dark and cramped motel room in South Burlington, thanks to support from Women Helping Battered Women, and struggling to get by on $721 per month. Physically unable to work since January 2010, she'd burned through her entire life savings in Colorado, where she went to obtain an oral THC tincture that eased her pain.

Divorced and with one adult daughter who also lives in South Burlington, Sandy spent much of her final days alone. On the day we met, she was skeletally thin, her ropey arms crisscrossed with veins, her breathing labored by asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. At any moment she seemed on the verge of breaking into a coughing fit that would leave her coughing up blood.

Yet despite her dire medical condition, Sandy laughed often and easily, which belied the seriousness of her illness. At times, it seemed a nervous, almost desperate laughter. In several emails she expressed her fear of ending up homeless or in jail — dismal concerns for someone to wrestle with in her final days of life. Little wonder that, according to her daughter, Atalie Wells, she developed an interest at the end of her life in becoming active in public housing issues.

Sadly, Sandy never got the chance. According to her daughter, she suffered a collapsed lung several weeks ago and "just went downhill from there." She died in her motel room, surrounded by several family members, who remembered her for her love of music, dancing and laughter. A private memorial service was held for her on Saturday, September 10.

According to her longtime friend, Lynn Appleby, Sandy Ward's death was also announced at the annual Hempstalk Festival in Portland, Oregon on Sept. 10 and 11, which advocates for the decriminalization of marijuana for medicinal, industrial, and recreational use. There, says Appleby, "approximately 6000 people puffed in her honor."

I am sad for anyone who dies, esp. from something like lung cancer.

Ms. Ward occasionally posted comments on this blog and they were were typically hostile, shrill, nutty, off-topic, and non-cogent. And this article points out that, as an adult, she admitedly scoffed at the law.

"Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Ward admitted, her pot-growing activities were strictly for profit and recreational use."

It is sadly ironic that someone who smoked cigarettes for 35 years and had lung cancer would then smoke marijuana to allegedly ease her suffering. I question whether there is a single legitimate medical doctor, anywhere, who would recommend smoking pot when your lungs are already tumored.


Caleb, Sandy didn't smoke pot in her final year of life. She preferred to ingest it orally, much the way many terminal patients do. They include a former thoracic surgeon who worked at Fletcher Allen for many years, who contracted a particularly aggressive form of AIDS after accidentally getting stuck by a needle in the OR. The surgeon, whose name I can't recall, suffered from chronic wasting, a common symptom of AIDS. Like Sandy, he, too, chose to ingest cannabis by eating a THC-laced butter. His wife testified before the VT Legislature during the initial hearings on legalizing medical marijuana.

So, she toked until the age of 51 . . .

By the way, the hyphenated clause of this sentence:

"It wasn't until she was diagnosed with lung cancer in November 2010 — she was a cigarette smoker for 35 years — that she turned to cannabis to relieve the pain she suffered from the tumor growing in her right lung."

clearly is intended to state that her lung cancer was due to her cigarette smoking. Howabout the possibility that it was from years and years and years and years of smoking pot, or at least a combination of 35 years of smoking tobacco and pot? Perhaps you shouldn't make the automatic assumption that it was the tobacco and only the tobacco that caused the tumor in her lung.

As far as the woman who testified on legalizing medical marijuana, you may be thinking of Debbie Ramsdell. I know her. Nice, but nutty. I wouldn't let her drive my car or babysit my kids.

What a dignified way to die. USA! USA! We gave Sadaam Hussein better health care than this woman had.

It is sad to see anyone die. Sandy was always on FreyneLand and I had plenty of go rounds with her.

Unfortunately, it is also sad to see someone be healthy and delusional, pissing their life away so they can smoke a little weed.

It's too bad that struggles like this, breaking the law... health risks... etc are put up to advocate legalizing marijuana instead of illustrating the negative effects.

Imagine a drug company distributing a drug with medical claims unproven by clinical trials, no FDA approval, no studies of safety or effectiveness, and with evidence that it can actually cause cancer.

Is this the way we want medications introduced to the health care system?

Vermont and other states who's politicians prescribe "medical marijuana" via arbitrary legislative processes defy decades of work by medical professionals relating to how medication is introduced into the health care system. This is not only reckless, but in this case of Sandy Ward it appears that it may have contributed to her illness and death.

Ok, so she was an obnoxious, eccentric, pot smoking kook, did that somehow justify taking her home away and impoverishing her? Are we all safer today because of it?

Umm Tim, it did justify taking her house away. See whatever property is used in the perpetuation of a crime is fair game to be seized.

Again, the consequences of "just smoking a little weed"

Our ridiculously heavy handed drug war hasn't eliminated drugs, or made them harder to find or made us any safer. It is the very model of an inept government program.

GOOD LORD people, i don't even know where to start. first, calop, in 2005 the feds did a study on all things respitory and weed. they found just the opposite of what you think. folks had a slightly less odds of getting cig. cancer if they smoked weed. sorry. oh and now PLEASE go to Montana and watch their new story on the science of cannabis. once you've watched the 56 mins. you can then pull your foot out of your mouth and replace your ignorance with scientific knowledge...BRAVO ! oh and i to know debbie. and she doesn't smoke weed her dying husband did. and as nice as she is she probably wouldn't want to drive your kids around town. and finally realize this poor gal was a child of God who sadly got addicted to cigarettes at an early age and THAT addiction is what killed her. R.I.P. sandy ward..

If my patient with end-stage lung cancer felt relief from THC, I would prescribe it. At that point, my job is to alleviate suffering in whatever way I can. Not to judge or punish people for their choices.

Pharmaceutical companies are crafty (Read White Coat, Black Hat). They know how to push through medications that are dangerous or lack sufficient evidence. Nobody has died from marijuana use, PLENTY have died as a result of prescription medications. The marijuana debate is driven by politics not medicine. In the eyes of the US Gov, marijuana is ranked MORE dangerous than cocaine, in other words, cocaine has more medical benefit.

Also, there are FDA approved medications that include THC (i.e. Marinol). Justin sayin' .....

thanks doc, but the "just say'in" thing goes as follows....THC i.e. marinol or dronobinal is synthectic version of ONE of 64 cannabinoids in weed. there are 7 other "THC" cannabinoids. like ammino acids they are meant to all work together. bottom line is ANY patient will tell you it doesn't come CLOSE to smoking weed, or even eating or tincture under the tongue .fastest titration is smoking.....just sayi'n old buddy.....

I knew Sandy many years ago. I liked her very much and I am sorry to hear of her death. My condolences go out to Atalie.

Nobody has died from marijuana use? Right.... just like no one dies from smoking cigs, they die from lung cancer. And no one dies from AIDS either, they die from pneumonia.

Well weed may not kill people, but I have seen it ruin a lot of peoples lives.

Just sayin


Please sign this petition!

Demand an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to End Marijuana, Marihuana,
Cannabis and Hemp Prohibition.

We the People of the United States of America
Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution to End Prohibition of
Marijuana, Marihuana, Hemp and Cannabis because we have a Right to Equal
Protection Under the Law to NOT be prosecuted and punished for for growing,
harvesting, farming, using, smoking, selling, manufacturing, brewing and
bottling substances and products which are equally as dangerous or LESS
dangerous than other legal products and substances such as alcoholic
beverages and tobacco products, as used and sold to adults age 21 and over.

PETITION Please sign, thank you!

@ anonymous:

Nobody has ever died from marijuana use? How could you POSSIBLY know that? You don't think that high people get behind the wheel and kill people? Think, please. And the argument that pharma companies are bad -- what has that got to do with whether marijuana is good? There's no logic there.

Governor Howard "doctor" Dean, an M.D., was 100% right in his steadfast opposition to "medical marijuana." He knew that there was no scientifically valid evidence for medicinal marijuana, and that the movement was a front for the general legalization crowd. Why do the same people who are pushing for general legalization show up as supporters for medical marijuana use? Because they want to get their foot in the door any way they can, that's why.

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