Gunshot survivor struggles to obtain medical marijuana

MONTPELIER – Ian Rhein has no problem finding drugs. The problem is getting his hands on the one that actually makes him feel better.

A bullet lodged in the St. Johnsbury man’s back – deposited almost 20 years ago from a gun shot by his mother’s abusive ex-boyfriend – causes severe and chronic pain. The suffering has earned him a steady supply of doctor-prescribed opiate painkillers. Rhein, though, despite being on the state’s medical-marijuana registry, can’t access the cannabis that provides true relief.

“The best way to describe it is it was like someone taking a 400-pound weight off my back,” Rhein said of the one time he was able to obtain marijuana. “Except I didn’t know the weight was there until I lost it. It was like, ‘Wow. This is amazing.'”

Rhein seems an unlikely advocate for marijuana-reform legislation. Last week, the 36-year-old father of two arrived at the Statehouse in a dark three-piece suit and wire-rimmed glasses. The Gulf War veteran – whose bullet-related pain was exacerbated by a service-related injury – was among a handful of advocates in Montpelier Friday urging lawmakers to adopt a bill that would create so-called “compassion centers” for the 189 residents enrolled in the state’s medical-marijuana registry.

“Having this card does nothing for me,” said Ian Rhein, flashing the medical marijuana card issued him by the Vermont Department of Public Safety.

Medical-marijuana legislation approved in 2004 allowed eligible patients to possess small amounts of the drug without fear of criminal sanctions. But the law — expanded in 2007 to include a wider range of pain-causing ailments and illnesses — never provided a legal outlet for those patients to obtain the cannabis they needed to alleviate their symptoms.

While patients or a designated caregiver can grow the plant — registrants may possess two mature plants and seven immature plants — cultivation can be difficult and the crops unreliable. Mark Tucci, who literally wrote the book on medical-marijuana cultivation, “The Patient’s Simple Guide to Growing Medical Marijuana,” says if he has trouble ensuring a reliable supply of medicine, what hope does a guy like Rhein have?

“Christ almighty, it’s ridiculous,” Tucci said by phone recently. “We can put methadone clinics in Vermont, but you’re telling me we can’t have a place where suffering people can get one of most benign drugs on earth?”

Tucci was recently “rationing” his remaining supply of homegrown medical marijuana. His new crop wouldn’t be ready for weeks, and the 53-year-old Manchester resident, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was cutting back on doses.

“I’m growing my own meds and it’s getting to be a pain in ass,” Tucci said.

Tucci says existing laws essentially force patients either to go without, like Rhein, or venture onto the black market, an undignified and potentially dangerous outlet where cannabis can be either prohibitively expensive or laced with impurities.

Rhein, whose concerns about social stigma and fear of robberies have kept him from growing, says even if he wanted the get the drug through illicit channels, he wouldn’t know where to begin.

“Law enforcement has profiles and so do illegal drug dealers,” Rhein said. “People assume that because I don’t have dreads or meet a stereotype, I must be a cop.”

Bills now under consideration in Montpelier aim to establish a system of dispensaries through which medical-marijuana patients could get affordable, high-quality medicine.

Vocal support for the measure from some lawmakers notwithstanding, House leadership seems unlikely to devote much debate the legislation this year. And Senate leaders, who traditionally have taken the lead on marijuana-reform laws, won’t spend much time on the bill, according to Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the judiciary committee, unless the House shows a real interest in getting something passed.

In an attempt to promote research into the benefits of medical cannabis, the American Medical Association late last year urged the federal government to reconsider marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 narcotic. The statement wasn’t an endorsement of medical-marijuana laws, however proponents called it an important step toward recasting the drug as a mainstream pharmaceutical product.

Law-enforcement officials, including Commissioner of Public Safety Thomas Tremblay, oppose the proposed dispensary law as another step down the slippery slope toward outright legalization.

“Whoever throws out that slippery slope argument – grow up,” Tucci says. “I’m suffering, man, OK? I’m suffering. And so are hundreds of other poor people. This is about medicine.”