Seeking Relief Through Medical Marijuana, Patient Sues Over Program Delays

Nov 5, 2015

Linda Horan, center, wants to access medical marijuana but has been left waiting until the state's dispensaries are ready to open.
Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR

A 64-year-old New Hampshire woman with terminal lung cancer has sued the Department of Health and Human Services over the state’s rollout of its medical marijuana program.

Linda Horan, of Alstead, was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year and would like to be able to use medical marijuana to ease the discomfort brought on by her condition. She’s asking the court, among other things, to order the state to issue identification cards to qualifying medical marijuana patients so they can use the substance without fear of arrest.

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New Hampshire passed its medical marijuana law in 2013 — but as it stands now, Horan and other patients have no legal way to access medical marijuana in New Hampshire until the state’s dispensaries are open.

“I’m asking them to provide compassionate care and do the right thing,” Horan said. “Make medical marijuana available to patients who qualify and who will benefit.”

Horan and other supporters – including Rep. Renny Cushing, New Hampshire AFL-CIO President Glen Brackett and other friends she’s made through her activism in New Hampshire’s labor movement – gathered outside the Merrimack County Courthouse Thursday morning to speak out against the state’s delays.

Cushing, a lawmaker from Hampton who supported the medical marijuana law when it first passed, said state legislators never intended patients to have to wait years to access medical marijuana.

“It’s outrageous that at this point in time, 28 months after the Legislature passed a medical marijuana law, not a single card has been issued by DHHS to allow patients like Linda to have access to the health care they need,” Cushing said Thursday.

One key issue for patients like Horan is the inability to obtain an identification card from the state, which would make it legal for them to possess medical marijuana and protect them from criminal charges.

In 2014, the attorney general’s office said the state should wait to distribute these registration cards until the first dispensaries are ready to open. That process is still in progress, and the companies selected to run New Hampshire’s dispensaries are aiming to launch early next year.

Horan's attorney, Paul Twomey, said that while the lawsuit is filed against the Department of Health and Human Services the agency has largely been cooperative and helpful in response to his questions — but they're constrained by the guidance they've been given by the attorney general.

In the meantime, Horan said, she and others with conditions that would otherwise make them eligible to use medical marijuana are being unnecessarily harmed by the state’s delays in launching the program.

Using therapeutic cannabis to alleviate her symptoms seems preferable to the alternative of relying on narcotics, she said, particularly as her condition becomes more severe.

“Dying is a very humiliating process,” Horan said Wednesday, before filing the lawsuit. “And, you know, there should be a little more dignity for people to have the medicine they need without having to break the law to do it. It’s bad enough you’re dealing with whatever you’re dealing with on a daily basis, and to be denied medicine that can be effective and forestall having to use narcotics, to me it’s unconscionable.”

Horan, a longtime labor activist, tried to plead her case directly to Gov. Maggie Hassan earlier this year. She devoted a portion of her remarks at the AFL-CIO Labor Day Breakfast in September to the issue and asked the governor, who was also at the event, to open the state’s dispensaries as soon as possible.

William Hinkle, a spokesman for the governor, said the state is trying to be cautious in its implementation of the medical marijuana program.

“The governor understands the urgency felt by many of the advocates and patients,” Hinkle said, “and she continues to encourage everyone involved to work as quickly as possible to implement the program while following all state laws and regulations.”

In a statement provided through the agency’s public information office, DHHS Commissioner Nick Toumpas said the department “has worked thoughtfully and diligently to ensure the program will have the highest level of operational integrity.”

“We have great compassion for this individual and all who are suffering,” Toumpas said.

The Department of Health and Human Services referred other questions on the lawsuit to the attorney general’s office, which did not return a request for comment as of press time.