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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Why veterans matter in cannabis

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The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) gave birth to a legal cannabis industry in New York, along with a realm of new possibilities, including hope for New Yorkers impacted by the War on Drugs and the promise of an innovative and booming adult-use industry built by and for all citizens of the Empire State.

A key factor of the MRTA is that it provides opportunities for social equity applicants of certain demographics to receive priority in licensing and mentorship programs. This includes applicants who are members of communities disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs, minority and women-owned businesses, distressed farmers, and service-disabled veterans.

As service-disabled veterans, we must admit we’re skeptical whenever we are thrown into a bill or measure like this one. We are usually used as “fluff” to exaggerate the reach of new pieces of legislation and sadly, it usually ends up with veterans just simply getting a “breakfast for our recognition of service.”

In this case, New York put service-disabled veterans in the MRTA and claims pioneering efforts in social equity. However, we do not see service-disabled veterans represented on the New York State Cannabis Advisory Board, the multidisciplinary group of industry experts tasked with providing guidance and leadership to the Cannabis Control Board and Office of Cannabis Management. This oversight says a lot about their priorities.

Related: ‘An afterthought of an afterthought’: veterans outraged over lack of representation in NY cannabis

Social equity considerations should not forget the ones that risked their lives for our country, for all the people of New York State.

When it comes to cannabis, this is something that can benefit every veteran’s physical, emotional, and mental health. This time “pancakes and handshakes” won’t do; and we want New Yorkers to understand why.

In the military, we have our own private War on Drugs that the public does not see. Because the Uniform Code of Military Justice provides severe penalties for possession of cannabis, including dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of all pay and allowances, countless service members in New York have lost careers, benefits, housing, and other opportunities as a direct result of this prohibition. Even testing positive can trigger a separation action against you or worse, a court martial.

Veterans serve our country with honor and pride, and we depend upon benefits after we leave the military. These are good men and women, leaders, teachers, heroes, and more. Many veterans come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and join for stability, financial and otherwise. Imagine “coming home” to New York without financial possibilities in a state with its own active War on Drugs.

On the medical side, veterans face a whole host of issues that the general public does not. I’ve seen service members come back from experiencing hardship beyond imagination, and these heroes wish to use cannabis as a medication and remedy. But because many veterans receive healthcare from the VA and a monthly stipend for disability benefits, medical cannabis is not an option for them. They would have to see a doctor out-of-network and visit a privately owned medical dispensary to acquire their medical cannabis. For many this is just a cost they cannot afford.

But it’s 2023 now, surely, we can do better? The fact remains for many service-disabled veterans, not much has changed. Seventeen veterans a day take their own lives for a host of reasons. For those experiencing hardship, or even contemplating suicide, not having access to medical cannabis could potentially cost them their lives.

When we think of those impacted by the War on Drugs, we should expand our concepts to be inclusive of all the people impacted. Think of the veteran you see every day in your community, who you thank for his service. He likely wakes up to a breakfast of several different types of medications, including antidepressants, pain killers, and mood stabilizers. He too is disenfranchised by cannabis prohibition and a lack of accessibility.

Given the opportunities created by the launch of New York’s adult-use industry, service-disabled veterans now have a chance not only to participate in the cannabis industry, but also help build and shape the program to assist fellow service members and shed light on our issues. .

We hope this is not a “bait and switch” where, once again, we end up with only the “pancakes.” We urge New York to do more to uplift the voices of service-disabled veterans, especially in the adult-use industry, as it could transform the lives and well-being of so many of us who have otherwise been left out.

Carmine Fiore served eight years with the US Army and NY Army National Guard and went on to serve the New York City Fire Department. He serves as co-chair for the Veterans Committee of the Cannabis Association of New York and will be applying for a NYS cannabis retail license this year.

Sarah Stenuf served four years and one deployment in the U.S. Army, as an Apache Crew Chief, prior to being medically retired for epilepsy from a TBI and PTSD. Stenuf is the founder and owner of Ananda Farms, a licensed AUCC holder, and Veteran’s Ananda, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that serves veterans. She is chairwoman for both the CANY Veterans Committee and the City of Fulton Cannabis & Hemp Advisory Council.

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