Pain Management

Cancer patient Tim Thomason didn't think he could feel any worse. His Denver jailers showed that he could.

In recent months, the ACLU has been sharply critical of several incidents of mistaken identity that left innocent people languishing at the PADF for days after they were arrested on someone else's outstanding warrant. Thomason's experience raises other questions about the way the jail handles individuals who have dire medical needs, as well as the degree to which a prisoner's actual time of release can be left up to the discretion of individual deputies.

Thomason has filed a lawsuit against the city and Denver Health, claiming "serious deprivations" of his constitutional rights. (Point of disclosure: Thomason's attorneys in the case are Anna Cayton-Holland, John Holland and Erica Grossman; the first two are related to Westword staff writer Adam Cayton-Holland, who had no involvement in this story.) The litigation has unearthed some troubling revelations about the way the city treats prisoners suffering from severe, chronic pain — a policy of profound denial that Thomason wants to see changed.

"I like Denver," Thomason says. "I love Denver. Up until that day, I really had a lot of faith in the city and felt safe here. But this incident scared me more than anything I've ever been through. I still have bad dreams about it. I don't believe I deserved to be treated like that. Nobody does."


Before his arrest two summers ago, Thomason's brushes with the law were "pretty comical," he says. He'd had some minor juvenile and adult infractions for marijuana, and there was also a ticket for not having his dog on a leash and a warrant out of Leadville over some unreturned movie rentals. At one point, he'd even been questioned, then cleared, because of a vague physical resemblance to a burglary suspect on a grainy surveillance video.

Yet there's nothing humorous about the circumstances that landed him in jail in 2006. The arrest was a result of the twelve marijuana plants in his apartment — plants that the former waiter was relying on to help him deal with serious, debilitating illness.

Born in Florida, raised in Arizona, Thomason spent a few years after high school traveling across the country and Europe. He worked in Yellowstone National Park, lived in Boulder for a time, then moved on. In 2002, he returned from a trip to the Netherlands to discover that his girlfriend had committed suicide in Ohio; her body had already been cremated, the ashes scattered at Martha's Vineyard. Awash in grief, he headed back to Colorado, to be with friends in Denver, and took a job at a Highland Square restaurant.

He felt lethargic and depressed for months. A dentist noticed lumps on the side of his neck and asked him if he was having other health problems. Thomason began to tell her about the suicide and his lack of energy.

"That's not depression," the dentist told him. "You need to go to the emergency room."

Thomason went that day. The biopsy results came back a week later: follicular B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the immune system. The typical NHL patient is a male in his late sixties; cases among young men are rare. Thomason was only 28, but his case was advanced and would require aggressive treatment. The doctors told him he probably had seven to nine years to live, and started him on a regimen of chemotherapy, pain medication and anti-anxiety drugs.

Over the next three years, Thomason rode the ebb and flow of the disease. As the pain in his bones increased, so did the dosages of Oxycontin prescribed to him. By 2006 he was taking 240 milligrams of Oxy a day: three 40-milligram tablets in the morning, another three at night — the analgesic equivalent of 48 Percosets a day. Plus liquid morphine as needed. Plus Xanax.

He was also growing and smoking marijuana. With his doctor's support, Thomason obtained a state permit for medical marijuana in 2005. Weed eased the nausea from chemotherapy, he found. It also helped his appetite. When he'd first been diagnosed, he'd lost fifty pounds in four months, and he couldn't afford to lose much more weight.

But Thomason didn't renew his license the following year. Living on disability checks that amounted to $625 a month, he didn't have the ready cash for the $110 license fee. He'd also heard conflicting rumors about the feds cracking down on the state's medical marijuana users and didn't want to attract attention to himself. "I was told that as long as I had a doctor's signature on file, I was good to go," he says.

Even with the heavy meds Thomason was taking, or perhaps because of them, at times he became disoriented and frightened. He experienced panic attacks so severe that he felt he might be dying. Two years ago, in the grip of one such attack, he called a friend, who became so concerned that she phoned 911 on his behalf.

Police and paramedics responded. The paramedics checked out Thomason and took him to the emergency room at Denver Health. The police took note of the plants and the absence of a valid license.

They returned a couple of days later to arrest him. Thomason let them in and signed a form allowing them to search the premises. They seized the plants and $1,200 in cash, which his mother had recently sent Thomason to pay bills and buy a plane ticket to Phoenix. They explained that he was being charged with felony cultivation. (The charge was later dismissed.) He would have to go to jail and face a judge in the morning. He asked if he could take his Oxy and Xanax, and they retrieved the pills for him.

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