Ind. Veteran Pushing For Legalization Of Medical Marijuana

Jan 31, 2017

Photo: Barbara Brosher

Jeff Staker asks the Veterans' Affairs committee to support his push for legalizing the use of medical marijuana.

The American Legion of Indiana could consider a resolution this weekend that would encourage state lawmakers to develop a medical marijuana program.

The proposal comes from a Kokomo veteran who hopes medical marijuana could help veterans struggling with opioid addiction.

But, similar proposals have failed to gain traction at the statehouse.

Veteran Hopes Medical Marijuana Could Help Treat Physical, Emotional Pain 

Veterans gather on a daily basis at the bar or around tables at the American Legion post in Martinsville to catch up with each other. The talk revolves around their families, politics and, lately, a proposal from another veteran to make medical marijuana legal in Indiana.

“People don’t know what kind of pain old men have. You can explain it to them, but nobody knows”

—James Ritter, Veteran

“If marijuana is medically available for older veterans that have a need for pain relief, yes, do it,” says Veteran James Ritter.

Ritter spent two decdes with the Indiana National Guard. He says he supports any legislation that could help fellow veterans improve their health.

“[Legislators] need to go to the veteran’s home in Lafayette, they need to go to the nursing homes where the veterans are there that cannot do anything for themselves but just take pills that doctors prescribe,” Ritter says. “And they’re not getting any better. They need to go out and visit these people instead of just hear stories about it.”

The non-profit Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis released an ad throughout the state this month. Veteran Jeff Staker started the initiative to push for a medical marijuana program in Indiana.

He spoke during the legislature’s veteran’s affairs committee this week. Staker says he’s interested in how marijuana could help curb opioid addiction.

“We got veterans dying every 30 minutes of prescription pain overdose,” he says.

According to Veterans Affairs officials, about 60 percent of those returning from deployments in the Middle East suffer from chronic pain. Doctors often prescribe powerful opioid painkillers that can be highly addictive.

A study published earlier this year found when states legalize medical marijuana, the number of painkillers prescribed drops significantly. Staker says he’s hopeful a medical marijuana program could help veterans with other health problems, too.

“As veterans we’re looking at it as a way to treat veterans from things from PTSD to chronic pain,” he says.

Staker drafted a resolution calling on legislators to develop a medical marijuana program and the American Legion of Indiana could vote on the proposal Saturday.

Photo: Barbara Brosher

Previous medical marijuana bills proposed at the statehouse failed to gain any traction.

Previous Attempts To Pass Medical Marijuana Legislation Unsuccessful

A small number of legislators are also calling on the state to adopt such a program. Senator Karen Tallian, D-Portage,  filed a bill this year – and for the past several years –  to legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

She wants the state to develop a program of its own. More than half of the states in the country have medical marijuana programs, including neighboring states Illinois, Ohio and Michigan.

“I setup a Department Of Marijuana Enforcement, we’re going to call it DOME,” Tallian says. “And this department would then put together a more comprehensive, specific program and then bring it back to the legislature.”

Other legislators are proposing similar bills and some are pushing to legalize the use of cannabis oil for medical treatment. Tallian says the proposals at least deserve discussion.

“Everybody is slowly coming to the table that we need to do something,” she says. “Because the public is demanding this. This legislature is way behind public opinion on this topic.”

But Republican Governor Eric Holcomb said during a gubernatorial debate last year he’s not interested in tackling the issue, even if the discussion focuses solely on medical treatment.

“The public is demanding this. This legislature is way behind public opinion on this topic.”

—Karen Tallian, D-Portage

“Right now, in the world we’re living in, expanding or legalizing drugs of this nature isn’t on my list,” Holcomb said.

It appears it’s not on the list of priorities for most state legislators, either. Tallian’s bill is assigned to the tax and fiscal policy committee.

“Maybe that means we should tax it, legalize it and treat it like alcohol,” she says. “But, I don’t think so. I think it’s been sent there to die, once again.” 

But Ritter is hopeful Tallian’s wrong and the legislators will give the bills a serious look.

Because he says civilians just don’t understand the emotional and physical pain many veterans face.

“People don’t know what kind of pain old men have,” he says. “You can explain it to them, but nobody knows. So, we need help.”

Current federal law prohibits VA doctors from signing off on any forms that allow patients to use marijuana for medical treatment, even in states where it’s legal.