Here's how vets (and you) can change marijuana laws

Matt Saintsing
March 13, 2018 - 4:35 pm

Photo by Philip A. Dwyer/Bellingham Herald/TNS

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A retired U.S. Air Force Colonel told Ryan Rasnick, a veteran who served in the Ohio National Guard, how to apply for his medical marijuana card. Army veteran Eric Detelj credits cannabis for getting him off opioids, which he took every day for nine years. And in December, veterans in Hawaii participating in the state-sanctioned medical marijuana program were told to “voluntarily surrender” any guns they own, because weed is illegal federally.

Whether one can access cannabis, varies from state-to-state. Currently, 29 states plus the District of Columbia have medical marijuana programs in place, 28 of which include post-traumatic stress (PTS) as a qualifying condition (Alaska doesn’t incorporate PTS in its medical cannabis program, but allows any adult over 20 to purchase cannabis legally).

With the recent meteoric rise in marijuana legislation throughout the country, veterans have been front and center as increasingly more visible and vocal marijuana advocates.

jeff
Photo Courtesy: Jeff Staker

Jeff Staker, a former Marine scout sniper who retired from the Indiana Air National Guard in 2004 says the drug freed him from his dependence on oxycodone, an opiate that he took for eight years.

“I was needing to take more of the drug to do what it did in the beginning, and I was running the risk of accidentally overdosing,” says Staker, the founder of the Indiana-based Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis, a non-profit organization that advocates for veterans’ right to use the plant therapeutically and responsibly.

When Staker’s VA doctor told him to discontinue oxycodone, Staker asked him what he thought about medical cannabis. According to Staker, the VA physician told him if he could prescribe it he would, but that is prohibited.

That’s when Staker took matters into his own hands and launched Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis in July 2016.

“Even though policy is slow to change, people in my state are listening to veterans’ voices,” says Staker. “We’re grabbing the attention of the public and our politicians.”

Staker left the Marines in 1994 after an 11 year stint that also involved being a drill instructor. In 1997, he switched over from being a DOD law enforcement officer to a firefighter and retired on New Year’s Day of this year.

“That’s when I switched my medication,” he adds.

Staker is a prime example the power veterans can wield when it comes to changing marijuana laws, but much of the progress is made at the state, not the national, level.

Photo by C.M. Guerrero/Miami Herald/TNS

 “Should the President of the United States tomorrow wake up and seek to end marijuana prohibition, he is empowered to do so,” says Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

With the stroke of a pen, President Donald Trump could end cannabis proscription. Barring that, Congress would have to act to reform marijuana laws at the federal level, but there’s little sign that’ll happen any time soon.

With so many members of Congress quick to showcase their support for veterans— and some outright attempting to wear them as jewelry—it should be highlighted that their inaction on cannabis is doing an immense disservice to those who seek to alleviate their physical and mental injuries of war.

But, that’s where the states come in.

Vermont and Beyond

Vermont became the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana through its state’s legislature. In January, Gov. Phil Scott (R) signed a bill legalizing cannabis for adults 21 and older, allowing for the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, as well as two mature and four immature plants.

Vermont became the ninth state to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, but the other states did so through the ballot box.

When it comes to going through a state’s legislature, “it’s usually a slower process by its nature,” says Matt Simon, the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

“It’s easier for politicians to just not take on controversial issues and it takes time to change the thinking in a state’s legislature, but that can be done through a variety of tools.”

 By applying pressure through grassroots efforts and focused advocacy, Vermont decriminalized cannabis in 2013, and the state immediately began studying legalization.

“If there wasn’t a grassroots effort driving this, there wouldn’t be progress in Vermont,” adds Simon.

Photo by Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS/Sipa USA

Vermont began taking expert testimony and having hearings, and over the course of a few years, they (slowly) learned the truth about marijuana.

“In Vermont, they’re less freaked out about cannabis, because they’ve been studying it,” says Simon. “There are still prohibitionists in the state, but they don’t win the day anymore.”

Vermont’s new law takes effect July 1, 2018.

Simon recommends the first step anyone in any state can take is to find pro-marijuana groups and connect with them. The Marijuana Policy Project has a list of groups in each state and a list of laws that have been introduced.

Secondly, Simon says it’s critical to find out who your state and local representatives and delegates are, and contact them asking them to support marijuana legislation that’s being considered.

“That’s the bare minimum. These people are your neighbors and you can probably get a meeting with them,” says Simon.

Minds are being changed, and it's the human connection that makes the difference. 

“We see these conversions all the time, we see people who are prohibitionists to being neutral, and they end up being supportive very quickly,” Simon continues.

That’s what happened to Republican Indiana State Rep. Jim Lucas, a pro-marijuana former Marine. 

Staker, of Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis, had connected with Lucas who ended up introducing Indiana House Bill 1106 that would have permitted the cultivation, dispensing and use of medical cannabis by people with “serious medical conditions” in the state.

Photo Courtesy: Indiana State House

The bill failed to get out of committee before the 2018 legislative deadline, however “it prompted one hell of a conversation,” says Lucas.

An Indiana House-backed interim study committee on the subject of medical marijuana is scheduled to convene this summer. In other words, they are studying the issue further, like Vermont did, and Lucas remains quite optimistic about Indiana’s chance to reform their cannabis laws.

Lucas says he plans to introduce another bill to decriminalize and allow for medical marijuana and he says he’s hopeful that the study this summer will allow for experts from across the country to come to Indiana to testify.

“The very bright spot is the grassroots efforts,” he added. “This issue polls off the charts across all demographics…everybody is overwhelmingly for it.”