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More Ohio veterans could benefit from medical marijuana, advocates say

By PATRICK COOLEY | The (Canton, Ohio) Repository | Published: January 26, 2020

CANTON, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Former members of the military make up a sizable portion of the state’s medicinal cannabis users.

But some activists and nonprofit groups think more veterans could benefit and are working to expand access to the drug among former service members.

Officially, veterans make up about 6% of the roughly 88,000 medical marijuana patients in Ohio, slightly lower than the percentage of Ohioans who have served. But that figure is almost certainly an undercount, said Tim Johnson, co-founder of the Ohio Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, an advocacy group.

“Many more did not register under veteran status,” said Johnson, an Air Force veteran.

Several former members of the military who use medicinal cannabis privately told The Dispatch that they prefer not to disclose their past military service for fear of losing their veterans benefits. A Veterans Administration spokeswoman said the government agency will not terminate benefits because of medical marijuana use, but many veterans are skeptical.

Losing VA benefits “could mean losing their livelihood,” Johnson said. But most veterans in the medical marijuana program aren’t receiving those benefits anyway, he added.

VA health care providers are barred from recommending marijuana because it remains illegal under federal law.

Michael Keller, 36, of Huber Heights, is an Air Force veteran and former marijuana advocate who is open about his medicinal cannabis use in part to end the stigma surrounding the drug. While research on the efficacy of medical marijuana is promising but largely inconclusive, Keller sees the drug as a safer alternative to opioid painkillers and psychiatric medications.

Many of his fellow veterans self-medicate with alcohol, Keller said, but marijuana doesn’t have the same risk of causing violent or self-destructive behavior.

“There’s no risk of death, and there are limited collateral consequences,” he said.

Keller, an attorney, advocated for legalized marijuana in Ohio before the General Assembly allowed medicinal use of the drug in 2016. He points to studies that show opiate overdose deaths fell in states that permit medical marijuana, although some experts caution that those two things are not necessarily connected.

Veterans and the indigent are the only groups for whom Ohio marijuana dispensaries are allowed to provide discounts.

“It’s common for dispensaries to offer discounts to both groups, but the amount varies by dispensary,” said Thomas Rosenberger, associate director of Ohio’s branch of the National Medical Cannabis Industry Association.

Medical marijuana patients continually list price as the biggest barrier to access, and that is especially true of veterans who are disabled and can’t work.

“It is pricey, and that’s a problem” said Robert Doyle, 63, of Newark, an Army veteran and medical marijuana card holder.

Doyle said he can afford the drug thanks to a discount for veterans.

But many veterans privately told the Dispatch that they continue to buy the drug from illicit dealers because they can’t afford to buy it legally, even as prices have fallen.

In the meantime, activists and nonprofit groups are working to expand access for veterans.

The nonprofit group Veterans Ending the Stigma supports former military members and works to end veteran homelessness. But the group also lobbies to relax federal marijuana restrictions, which would remove much of the red tape that marijuana users face in states that have legalized the drug.

The group, based in Dayton but mostly operating online, was part of a working group that lobbied the World Health Organization before the international body recommended placing marijuana in a less restrictive category.

Ending the Stigma also aims to have the drug reclassified so doctors can prescribe it.

“We want people to see it more as a medicine,” said Robert Kowalski, who lives in Boardman and runs the group with a handful of volunteers.

Kowalski, an Air Force veteran who is disabled, said he stopped using addictive painkillers after he started using medical marijuana.

Darrell Leffingwell, founder of the Ohio Veteran’s Alliance for Medical Cannabis, likes to emphasize such experiences when he advocates for veterans. Leffingwell acknowledged that more research on medical marijuana is necessary, but said “the claim that cannabis has no medical value whatsoever is a hard pill to swallow, especially when you’re taking 27 pills a day.”

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