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Sean P. Murphy | The Fine Print

‘It felt wrong and ridiculous’: A caregiver was banned from joining her husband inside a dispensary

Don Smith has cancer and his wife, Deborah, was not allowed to go with him to purchase medical marijuana.
Don Smith has cancer and his wife, Deborah, was not allowed to go with him to purchase medical marijuana. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

Don Smith arrived at the medical marijuana dispensary totally exhausted from climbing the stairs from the parking lot.

Smith, 72, is dying of inoperable, late-stage prostate cancer. Without palliative treatment, he has no appetite, and can’t keep food down. He has lost 45 pounds.

Smith spends most days tucked into bed, cared for by Deborah, his wife of more than four decades.

A couple of months ago, friends counseled Don to try marijuana to bring a level of peace and comfort to his final days. To his surprise, it worked, allowing him to eat and easing his pain. “A miracle drug,” he declared.

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Luckily for Smith, voters in a ballot referendum in 2012 delivered a clear directive to the state government: make marijuana readily available to folks who medically need it.

But what happened at that dispensary on March 23 shows the state still has some serious kinks to work out in the way it oversees medical marijuana.

Don and Deborah had already endured a stressful couple of weeks arranging for a state-certified doctor to approve Don for marijuana.

Then it took another 2½ weeks for the state Cannabis Control Commission to process Don’s application and mail a registration card to him at his home in West Townsend.

Don, emaciated and out of breath, showed his newly issued registration card for the first time through the locked glass door of a dispensary in Ayer called Compassionate Care. He was approved for entry. The couple assumed that meant Deborah, too.

But a voice coming through the speaker next to the door told her otherwise: “You can’t come in.”

“But he needs my help,” Deborah said into the speaker. “He can barely walk.”

“You can’t come in,” the voice repeated.

Don, who sometimes has trouble concentrating, looks to Deborah to make decisions. He and Deborah had come to the dispensary for marijuana, yes, but the prime reason for being there was to pick the brains of the people who work there. On its website, the dispensary touts its expert personnel and “professional guidance.”

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The Smiths for months had experimented with recreational marijuana, now legally available in Massachusetts. Friends had brought an array of cannabis products, including gummy bears (he had trouble keeping them down) and cannabis oil, along with a vape pen for using it (that triggered coughing fits).

Deborah and Don needed to learn how best to treat Don’s nausea and other symptoms.

“Do you want to go in?” Deborah asked her husband after she was refused entry.

“No,” he said. “Not without you.”

As they drove away, tears streamed down Deborah’s face.

“We had been working so hard to make it better for Don,” Deborah recalled when I visited their home. “It felt wrong and ridiculous.”

For years, medical marijuana dispensaries have allowed spouses and other caregivers to enter their premises by simply signing them in, whether they had a state-issued caregiver’s registration card or not.

But word recently trickled out from the Cannabis Control Commission that caregivers without a card should be excluded, even though the law gives dispensary operators discretion to admit “visitors.” (Deborah’s caregiver’s application is pending; under state regulations, a caregiver can’t apply for a card until the patient has received his.)

After being turned away, Deborah called the Cannabis Control Commission to complain about the way she and Don were treated. The reply was, essentially: “Too bad.”

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Deborah also complained that denying her entry ran afoul of her husband’s health care proxy, which legally empowers her to make medical decisions for him. She said she couldn’t imagine being stopped from accompanying Don into a hospital emergency room.

“Don is very ill, and this is a very stressful time for him, Deborah, and their family,” a family lawyer wrote to Compassionate Care, attaching the health care proxy to his e-mail. “Please allow Deborah to accompany him in your facility without limitation.”

Don served in Vietnam 50 years ago. Until recently, he supported his family building houses. I didn’t detect a bit of self-pity in him. But I did notice him tearing up when he recalled the moment he first realized that marijuana had relieved his nausea.

“My condition is not curable,” he told me. “The only thing I can do is to get as comfortable as possible.”

Deborah and Don said they contacted me to shake things up, so others aren’t treated like they were.

I brought this sad experience to the attention of the Cannabis Control Commission. And I’m pleased to report the commission responded to their plight:

■  The commission last week told medical marijuana dispensaries, including Compassionate Care, that they can allow caregivers to come in, whether they have cards or not.

■  The commission will soon unveil an “automatic registration” system that will allow patients to purchase marijuana at dispensaries on the same day they are medically approved by a doctor. I think the way it’s done now, with its built-in 2½-week delay, borders on cruelty.

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Once the commission cleared Deborah to enter the dispensary, Mark Hillier, the chief operating officer of Compassionate Care, wrote a very sweet note to the Smiths:

“We are excited to welcome you both into our dispensary,” it said. “We have a very knowledgeable team of dispensary agents to help guide you.”

Hillier thanked the Smiths on behalf of all patients in need of medical marijuana.

Deborah and Don are now working with the dispensary on a treatment plan to allow Don to live out his remaining days in less pain and discomfort. It’s what he and Deborah deserve.


Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.