Turning a New Leaf: Missouri veterans’ fight to save lives through medical cannabis reform

By Michael Layer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Joshua Lee gained popularity in April when he posted a photo online carrying almost 10,000 Smarties. The Afghanistan veteran stuffed $60 worth of Smarties candies in a bag to represent the annual amount of medication he is scheduled to take to combat his physical and psychological ailments. The bag weighed over 10 pounds and its size is striking.

Lee with Smarties PHOTO/JOSHUA LEE

“Prior to myself posting that picture online, I was a hermit in my basement. I didn’t get out. I didn’t have friends. I wasn’t involved in the community or politics,” Lee says. “I was hiding from the world.”

At the time, he was using his platform as a veteran to advocate for the use of medical cannabis instead of prescription medication. As his message spread, other veterans encouraged him to continue to be socially active, fighting for veterans rights. In September, he formed the Veterans Alliance for Compassionate Access to fight for social and political change through science-based data. Lee feels that his group’s use of scientific data and experience as a veteran allows him to be free of party influence.

“What I’ve built is an actual, bipartisan organization. We are not Republicans, we are not Democrats,” he declares. “We want to be the bridge between all these divisive factions and start saving lives.”

One of the issues his alliance is concerned about is medical marijuana reform. He feels that cannabis consumption can get Missouri veterans off of prescription drugs and opiates, lower veteran suicide, and improve veteran mental health. “Medical cannabis is legitimately the quickest, easiest thing I can do to save the most lives,” he said.

One of his first actions involved speaking with Governor Eric Greitens about the possibility of cannabis reform. The veteran governor listened to Lee and other veteran activists and tasked him to gather scientific information to present his findings to him and the Department of Health and Senior Services.

“He pledged that his government will support policies based on science and data,” Lee said. “Honestly, that means I win.”

The Governor could not be reached for comment.

According to Lee, he has over 1,200 pages of double-blind, clinically controlled studies that demonstrate the efficacy of cannabis for medical purposes. The only FDA-approved study in the country is led by Dr. Sue Sisley from the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona to determine its effects on veterans with PTSD. Many governments, including the federal government, are waiting for the results of her research before making a decision on legalizing medical marijuana.

She visited the Show-Me State in September to meet many of Missouri’s elected officials. Before she left, she extended an invitation for Missouri legislators to visit her institute and witness medical marijuana policies in Arizona.

Dr. Sue Sisley

“We’ve hosted so many conservative legislators in Arizona over the past few years. We’ve had a medical cannabis law for over six years now. It’s really helpful for these guys to see what does a mature medical marijuana market looks like in a similarly conservative state. That’s really valuable. If they go to Colorado or Washington, it’s not a good model for them,” she says. “You won’t see a dispensary on every corner like in Denver. You’re going to see a tightly regulated market”

Lee’s alliance has been active to bring Missouri legislators to Arizona. He’s arranged buses to go in November, but is worried some will be hesitant because his group is financing it. He is considering alternative funding for the trip.

“I am going to be approaching the Lt. Governor’s office about seeing if we can get the Missouri government to actually pay for this trip. I know for a fact I can gather the donations to pay for these senators’ trips out there,” Lee said. “I was really starting to ask for donations to pay for this trip, but honestly I really feel that in the interests of keeping things as above board and objective as possible. I need a non-biased source to push them out there.”

Lee’s motivation for medical marijuana reform is motivated to save Missouri veteran lives, but he wants to emphasize that he does not want his organization to be defined by this one issue. He has plans to address mental health issues, industrial hemp legalization, and criminal justice reform.

“There’s a lot more that veterans can do for this state and this country than just medical cannabis… Veterans have already made the ultimate sacrifice, we already signed up – whether we went overseas or not – we made the offer to sacrifice our lives and our health for the betterment of this country,” Lee says. “To selfishly focus on something as simple as medical cannabis would be irresponsible of a veterans’ organization dedicated to social and political improvement.”

This story originally appeared on The Missouri Times.

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