IN: Veterans Rallying For Medical Marijuana

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Jeff Staker is a former Marine who served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. He’s taught leadership classes to non-commissioned officers at a military academy and worked as a law enforcement officer at Grissom Air Reserve Base, where he currently serves as a firefighter.

With that kind of background, Staker isn’t the type of guy most people would peg as a strong advocate for medical marijuana.

But he is, and now he’s decided to use his credentials to rally Hoosier veterans to push to get medical marijuana legalized in Indiana.

Last month, Staker received nonprofit status from the Indiana Office of the Secretary of State for a new organization he created called Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis, and he plans to use the group as a vehicle to lobby state lawmakers to pass legislation allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana.

“Somebody has to do this,” he said. “I’d be glad just to support somebody else, but I don’t see where there’s anyone really taking this on.”

Staker said he began to think seriously about medical cannabis after deciding to stop taking the painkiller oxycodone, which had been prescribed by his physician at a Veterans Affairs clinic. He said he had been using the drug for more than five years, and it had stopped helping treat his pain.

“I asked the doctor what he thought about cannabis, and he told me, ‘If I could prescribe it, I would. In a heartbeat.’”

VA doctors have had the legal authority to recommend medical marijuana since 2015, when Congress approved a bill allowing physicians in states where cannabis is legal to recommend its use to veterans.

“That’s fuel for me to bring this to the state level and say, ‘Hey, our Congress has recognized that veterans are finding a need for this,’” Staker aid.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 25 states, and it seems absurd that Indiana isn’t one of them, he said.

His go-to statistic is the fact that more than 28,600 people died in 2014 from overdosing on opiate painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That comes to someone dying roughly every 20 minutes.

On top of that, the death rate from opiate overdoses among VA patients is almost double the national average, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Staker said as a Grissom firefighter, he’s been dispatched on countless overdose calls, which normally stem from drugs like heroin, meth or prescription pills, but not once has he responded to a call for an overdose of marijuana.

Given the national statistics and his own experience, he said, it was time somebody started pushing state lawmakers to seriously consider marijuana as a legitimate alternative to other forms of medication.

And if anyone can convince lawmakers to take on an issue, it’s veterans, Staker said.

“Who’s going to get this done? Veterans have a better chance of being at the tip of the spear than Joe civilian,” he said. “Legislators listen to veterans. We’ve got to get their attention, and who better to do that than veterans?”

Medical-marijuana legislation isn’t something new at the statehouse. Just this year, two bills were introduced that would have legalized medical cannabis. Neither bill made it past its first reading in committee.

Rep. Bill Friend, R-Macy, also co-authored a bill that would have encouraged research on hemp oil and made it legal to possess cannabinoid oil for the treatment of epilepsy. That bill passed in the House but didn’t receive a vote in the Senate.

Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, has introduced bills for the last three years to legalize medical cannabis, all of which never received a vote, and she recently talked to Staker about his new organization.

She said she was excited a veteran was taking up the issue in Indiana, since veterans groups have been instrumental in some states in getting medical cannabis legalized.

“I think having a group in Indiana will help raise awareness of the things that veterans suffer from and that they’re looking for alternative ways to get relief,” Errington said. “You always hope things will be different when you introduce a bill, but with the additional support from veterans, I think it gives the issue more traction. Legislatures listen to veterans.”

Staker said he doesn’t want to take on the issue alone, though. His goal is to receive support from at least one member from every Veterans of Foreign Wars group or American Legion post in the state to build a coalition of veterans who support medical marijuana.

“I want to be up on a hill, so to speak, so that other veterans will see me and come up and join me,” he said. “Politicians will see us up there. That’s the whole reason I’m doing this.”

Staker said he’s already started reaching out to veterans’ groups across the state, and everyone he’s talked to so far has been supportive of his mission.

Now, it’s a matter of taking that support to the statehouse to show lawmakers that veterans, along with other Hoosiers, are serious about having legal access to medical marijuana in Indiana, he said.

“When legislators say they need more time to research this issue, to me that sounds like an ostrich putting his head in the sand,” Staker said. “We have more than enough evidence that cannabis has medical value. The elephant is in the room. Legislators need to look at the evidence and make a decision.”

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Veterans Rallying For Medical Marijuana
Author: Carson Gerber
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