In final days, Tim Carpenter, of Northampton, found pain relief from cancer in medical marijuana

Last modified: Monday, May 05, 2014
This story, the second of two parts, was intended to run in Tuesday’s Gazette. The story was held when editors learned Monday night that Tim Carpenter, the subject of the story, had died. The first story, published in Monday’s Gazette, looked at the issues surrounding medical marijuana in this state, and why, despite its legalization, many patients may have a difficult time being treated with it.

NORTHAMPTON — Tim Carpenter beat terminal cancer 30 years ago with a combination of traditional medicine and a drug that is squarely in the national spotlight these days — marijuana.

Back then, the Florence resident known nationally for leading the Progressive Democrats of America acquired the drug covertly with the help of friends. He said it worked wonders for the pain and nausea associated with cancer treatment.

“My friends would laugh and say, ‘did you get a good buzz?’” Carpenter said during a recent interview at his Beacon Street home in Florence. “No. When you’re in that much pain, you can’t catch a buzz at all. But I believe it was part of a number of reasons why I was successful in not only learning to live with the cancer but beating it for the time being.”

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When the cancer came back about a year ago in the form of terminal melanoma, Carpenter returned to marijuana in an effort to cope with the pain, combining the plant with his regular cocktail of pain medications. Only, this time, he did so legally, thanks to the state’s legalization of marijuana use for medical purposes.

By no means does Carpenter claim cannabis is a cure-all, but he says it dulls the pain, helps keep nausea under control and lets him sleep, while traditional painkillers don’t.

“I don’t want to be one of those tinfoil-hat folks that’s going to claim that it’s going to cure my cancer,” Carpenter said. “But it is going to help me to live with it and also to die with it. It’s a good tool.”

Many physicians would not argue with Carpenter about whether marijuana is helping him cope with cancer, but that doesn’t mean they are completely on board with its use. Doctors throughout the Valley are expressing two major concerns that make them unwilling to certify its use for patients: Its use, though legal in the state, conflicts with federal laws regarding marijuana, and there is a lack of hard science proving the drug’s effectiveness.

Baystate Medical Practices, which includes 10 offices throughout the Valley, has adopted a written policy that forbids doctors and staff from certifying patients as eligible and in need of cannabis. Other medical groups, including those affiliated with Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Valley Medical Group, are in the early discussion stages, officials said.

Work in progress

Nearly everyone involved acknowledges medical marijuana is a work in progress as procedures and protocols are developed to meet the new law. Doctors are a key link in the process. Under state law, doctors sign a certificate for medical marijuana. Patients take that certificate to the Department of Public Health, where they register as a medical marijuana user. Doctors do not actually prescribe the drug.

Patients will be able to get marijuana at dispensaries when they open later this year — one in Northampton is expected to open Sept. 1 — but in the meantime, certification allows them to grow the plant themselves or to acquire cannabis through a personal caregiver who must register with the state.

While the medical community continues to tread carefully through uncertain issues created by medical marijuana’s legalization, Carpenter has no qualms about using the drug in the waning days of his life.

“Until I hear something profound to tell me not to, which I certainly haven’t heard yet, I’m going to continue down this path,” Carpenter said.

Doctors gave Carpenter little chance of surviving after finding a tumor originating in his lung had metastasized. He qualified for a test program run by a specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital that offered some hope of beating the cancer. While that medication shrunk the tumor initially, the cancer has since migrated to his liver, shoulder and brain.

“So my narrative moves from learning to live with cancer to learning to die with cancer,” Carpenter said. “There’s this fine line you deal with when you’re dealing with cancer.”

Carpenter said he won’t probably live long enough to see the day when the use of cannabis is not a hot-button issue, but he believes that people will look back a decade from now and wonder why so much money and energy was wasted debating the drug’s effectiveness.

In the meantime, he’s grateful that his doctor, Dr. Jeffery Zesiger, referred him to Dr. Jill Griffin, who issued him a medical marijuana certificate late last year.

“I think she’s a phenomenal asset to the community,” Carpenter said. “I found her commitment and passion very compelling in wanting to do the right thing by her patients and I hope that she’ll be able to continue to do her practice.”

Long arm of the law

For the time being, Griffin is the only doctor in the region to issue medical marijuana certificates out of her small Florence office called Northampton Medical Marijuana. She has embraced its effectiveness to help patients with an array of serious illnesses including cancer. While Griffin initially shared many of her colleagues’ concerns about cannabis, her attitude changed after she saw it work in patients and after thoroughly reviewing studies, many originating from Europe, that focus on the basic science behind the drug.

Other doctors in the region are nervous because marijuana has yet to be studied by the Food and Drug Administration and its long-term effects are unknown, an opinion shared by the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Plus, it’s against federal law, even though it has been approved at the state level. The Drug Enforcement Administration offers no protection from prosecution or other punishment, such as loss of federal funding, for doctors or physician groups that certify marijuana for patients.

While the debate swirled around him, Carpenter continued to run the Progressive Democrats of America, was preparing for the organization’s 10-year-anniversary event next month, and did his best to keep his spirits up.

“You get up every day and you live each day as if it’s your last and you make the most out of it,” he said. “You maximize the time you have with your family.”