CT: Middletown Cannabis Advocate Supported Affordability For Low-Income Patients

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Katelyn Baker

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Middletown - Before an untimely death last August of cancer, resident Tracy Helin credited cannabis for extending and improving his life.

A regular cannabis user for 27 years, Helin publicly advocated for the state's medical marijuana program. Prior to his death last August from complications of metastatic testicular cancer, Helin testified at an informational hearing of the Connecticut General Assembly on the legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use in the state. Helin shared with legislators his experience using cannabis oil and flowers medicinally. As as lifelong advocate of the disadvantaged, Helin pointed out the limited access of what he called the currently cost-prohibitive program to all socioeconomic populations in the state.

At a time when more than half the country supports legalizing marijuana in America, Election Day 2016 is shaping up to be a historic year for marijuana law reform. According to a June poll by Quinnipiac University, 52 percent of Americans favor legalizing cannabis for adults. Right now, New England states are at a tipping point of what many say is the inevitable legalization of recreational cannabis for adults, according to Colin Souney, an activist-advocate with the Connecticut National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

"If Massachussetts goes first, Connecticut is missing the boat," said Souney, who also testified at the April informational hearing in Hartford. With a much denser New England marketplace, one exponentially bigger than Colorado's market, the policy change could potentially "bring in billions" to the state that legalizes first in the region, Souney said.

State Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven, helped organize the hearing and, with the support of other Democrats, introduced introduced HB-5236 to legalize and tax cannabis. The CGA held the informational session last April in Hartford to begin discussions of a plethora of issues connected to the policy decision.

Helin, diagnosed a decade ago with a rare form of testicular cancer, had exhausted all medical options available, including surgeries, chemotherapy regimens and even a clinical trial that proved too debilitating for Helin to withstand, according to his testimony.

Speaking to the committee, Helin explained that he holds three college degrees, ran two marathons in recent years and managed a successful career as a 27-year cannabis user. Since much of the cannabis Helin procured came from a black/gray market, thousands of dollars was fed into a dark economy when it could have been diverted to the state, he said.

"His testimony was very powerful. He really advocated for others," said his wife, Christy Kovel. "His thoughts on legalization was that if it becomes more available that the taxes would subsidize the medical program, which can be cost-prohibitive."

As a patient, once Helin ran out of Western medical protocols, Helin turned to the state's medical marijuana program for help last November. He began using only cannabis oil or dried flowers as medicinal therapy from November 2015 to the April 2016 hearing, and until he passed away Aug. 15, according to Kovel.

"People have (MMJ) cards but cannot afford the medicine," agreed state Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, during the hearing. "We don't want to fuel the underground market but that's what we are doing today."

When low-income patients cannot afford the legal market, they may turn to a more dangerous option on the street, exposing themselves to possible health, legal and economic risks for a product of unknown, unverified purity.

Helin understood he was among an economic elite class of patients able to buy into the state's expensive medical cannabis program. An entry cost of up to $300 to get certified is only the first barrier to costly prescriptions of cannabis many are unable to afford.

Helin's pitch to subsidize cannabis medication for low-income state residents makes perfect sense to friend and former colleague Jackie Janosko.

"It's so (Tracy). He would totally be the one to think of this, of the less fortunate," said Janosko.

Across the United States today, there are currently 10 ballot initiatives pending to either legalize marijuana use for adults or to legalize the use of medical marijuana for qualifying medical conditions, according to NORML, which works, in part, to "move public opinion sufficiently to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults," and more, according to its website.

Aside from past illegal cannabis use, Helin, like thousands of Connecticut cannabis consumers in the state, are law-abiding and responsible citizens.

"I would gladly pay taxes," said Helin, who estimated spending up to $500 a month for cannabis scripts. Currently, the state's program is "very expensive and borderline inaccessible for those with financial constraints or live far from dispensaries," he testified.

In an informal survey of 40 self-identified patients participating in the state's medical program, 40 percent of respondents claimed they were spending $600 or more per month on medication. While 62 percent of those surveyed say they cut spending on necessities, such as food and energy, to purchase medications, 67 percent said that medication costs uses all disposal income, even forcing patients to borrow or go in debt, according to some anonymously posted comments.

Helin's viewpoint of creating an equitable distribution to all patients, despite their socioeconomic status, was appreciated, said state Rep. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown.

"We were considering how recreational would interplay with medical marijuana," said Lesser. "So this testimony offered a unique perspective."

Helin told the panel that he was paying a premium price at the dispensary for cannabis. "I made decision to buy it legally if I could," said Helin, adding he would have done it 20 years ago if he was able. "If we do legalize, I do want to see dollars spent on the medical program."

Kovel believes cannabis oil prolonged her husband's life. "This should be researched more thoroughly," she. "Tracy really felt very strongly that this program was beneficial. He was thoughtful and mindful that his experience was his own."

Though Helin admitted that he was unsure "exactly what I'm doing, since my doctors really won't even acknowledge the medical marijuana program," he reported a positive therapeutic experience overall.

After Helin's cancer metastasized, tumors developed on his lungs, his wife said. At the end of his life, cannabis offered comfort even as Helin entered hospice care weeks before his death.

"I take my doctor's advice, don't ignore advice, but they just don't have any other advice to give," Helin said in April. "Doctors won't endorse or guide me in this way."

"Let's hope our friends in Washington are watching this and will fund research" going forward, Lesser said.

Helin dedicated most of his life and career to advocacy on behalf of many issues that were near and dear to his heart, including homelessness and food insecurity, Kovel said.

"He supported additional access for patients who may benefit from the program," said Kovel.

For more on the state's medical marijuana program, visit ct.gov.



News Moderator: Katelyn Baker 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Late Middletown Cannabis Advocate Supported Affordability, Access For Low-Income Patients
Author: Kathleen Schassler
Contact: 860-347-3331
Photo Credit: Matthew Staver
Website: The Middletown Press