FOX43 Focal Point: Cannabis in the Commonwealth – Veterans struggle with access to medical cannabis

CAMP HILL, Pa. -- Jessica Freedman often wonders where should be if she had access to medical cannabis sooner.

Would she have gotten hooked on heroin at 14 years old?

Would she have avoided jail time after her mother reported her to police for stealing from her?

Would it have saved her brother's life, before he took his own?

"He was up to 22 pills a day when he shot himself in the backseat of his car," Jessica remembers.

Today, Freedman is seven months sober, having used medical cannabis to help ween her off her addiction to heroin. Her brother, Dane, a Marine Corps veteran, ran out of time before medical cannabis was legalized in Pennsylvania. He, like Jessica, got addicted to opioids to help ease the pain after returning from war. On December 13, 2013, he took his own life.

Amber Endrusick, the Director of Veterans Affairs for Cumberland County, acknowledges the opioid epidemic and substance abuse is one of the biggest issues facing veterans.

"We live in a society where 'Thank you for your service' is every other word and you’re put on a pedestal for being a hero," Endrusick said. "How can you be a hero and have a mental illness at the same time?"

Endrusick gets it. She's a veteran herself, having served overseas as a medic from 2000 to 2009. However, since marijuana is still considered a federally-banned Schedule I drug by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics cannot prescribe cannabis for one of the 21 conditions approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Health for medical marijuana use, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder.

Since medical marijuana is legal in Pennsylvania, Endrusick makes sure her veterans know it's an option. She cannot prescribe the medicine herself, but she does help veterans get in touch with local doctors, and gives them the information for a nearby RISE medical marijuana dispensary.

"We want to make sure they’re aware [medical marijuana] is legal and that if they go through the means provided by the state, the legal way, it's something they can access instead of turning to opioid or alcohol abuse," Endrusick said.

Congress does have the power to change the classification of marijuana as an FDA-classified Schedule I drug. There are also bills in Congress designed to give Veteran Affairs clinics and hospitals more freedom to prescribe medical marijuana in states it is legal.

FOX43 reached out to the six active U.S. Representatives and Senators in the WPMT viewing area: Republican Congressmen Dan Meuser (PA-9), Scott Perry (PA-10), Lloyd Smucker (PA-11), and John Joyce (PA-13), as well as Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic Senator Bob Casey. Of the six, only Perry, Joyce, and Toomey responded, and all three are not in favor of an FDA classification change. Their full responses are written below.

State Senator Mike Folmer of Lebanon and York Counties is not in favor of fully legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania. However, he is convinced a the stigma attached to marijuana is preventing medical cannabis users from equal treatment.

Folmer recently introduced Senate Bill 475, which he says will help protect medical marijuana patients, and ensure the same treatment as anyone else who uses prescription medication. Currently, it is illegal to drive a vehicle with any amounts of a Schedule I controlled substance in their blood. Folmer's bill would allow marijuana as long as someone has their medical marijuana card with them.

"I’m looking for patients to be viewed as patients, not marijuana patients, just like if you had a prescription for [Oxycontin] or Percocet," Folmer said. "I don’t want medical cannabis patients to be viewed differently because of misinformation."

Information and education is what Jessica Freedman specializes in today.

She is the operations manager for Omni Patient Advocates in Camp Hill, Cumberland County. She helps guide medical cannabis patients through the registration process, which often times, can be expensive.

According to patients, just getting certified with a qualifying condition by a medical marijuana doctor will cost around $200. A Pennsylvania medical marijuana card will run $50, according to the Pa. Department of Health. Also, if you are a caregiver for a patient responsible for giving the medicine, you must pay $19.60 for a federal background check.

Also, patients have said the medicine itself could run anywhere from $100 to $300 a month, depending on the severity of the condition, although patients hope those prices come down as more growers and dispensaries open across the state.

Freedman advocates for medical marijuana use in the memory of her brother, who wasn't able to get the medicine in time. For every purchase at OMNI, $5 go towards the Corporal Dane Freedman Memorial Fund, designed to help veterans with PTSD and depression.

"It took me along time not to cry while working at OMNI," Freedman said. "I was finally helping people instead of hurting them."

Responses to FDA/Marijuana Schedule I Classification Questions:

Rep. Scott Perry (R- PA 12):

1.       Yes, Congress can vote to change the FDA classification schedule.

2.       During this Congress, and the previous Congress, numerous proposals addressed the semi or full legalization of marijuana Nationwide, whether for medicinal or recreational purposes. (Congress.gov – keyword search “marijuana” will give you a list.) The prevailing legislative trend is to federally legalize the substance rather than move to criminalize the use, distribution or development.

3.       “I don’t support the federal reclassification of marijuana. I’ve met with numerous law enforcement officials and share their concerns that there isn’t an accurate way to determine if a person actually is under the influence of the substance. In situations where people are operating vehicles on the public roadways, we have no way of determining if s/he is “high”/impaired at a traffic stop, or were under the influence even months before the stop, which raises obvious public safety concerns,” said Congressman Scott Perry.

4.       “I’m a firm advocate of the States’ ability to make laws that best reflect the will of the citizens, within the bounds of the Constitution. I’ll leave the State legalization decision to the People of the Commonwealth and the Pennsylvania General Assembly.” 

Rep. John Joyce (R-PA 13):

“Congressman Joyce has no plans to push for any changes to the current federal policies regarding recreational marijuana. Just like Governor Wolf did until after he was reelected as governor, Rep. Joyce opposes legalizing recreational marijuana in Pennsylvania. He believes that it would be irresponsible given the Commonwealth is already in the midst of a drug crisis, and has renewed six separate disaster emergency declarations to address the opioid epidemic since 2018.”

Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA):

There are a number of measures that have been introduced in Congress to address the issue of states legalizing marijuana. Senator Toomey is following this debate closely.

Regarding the legality of marijuana, Senator Toomey’s view is that if there are chemical compounds in marijuana that are proven to be medically useful and helpful to people then they should be available to people. 

He does not support the recreational use of marijuana as it can have negative health effects and lead to abuse of other dangerous, illegal drugs. In the midst of an heroin epidemic, society should not be encouraging or sanctioning harmful drug use.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA):

“I support the ability of Pennsylvanians to have access to marijuana for medical purposes. We must change federal law to allow for research into medical uses of cannabis so we can ensure that the products being made available to Pennsylvanians are safe and effective. We also need to address the fact that there are far too many low-level, non-violent drug offenders currently serving time for marijuana-related offenses, and we should focus federal resources on the prevention of violent crime, where those resources are needed most. Additionally, I look forward to continuing conversations at both the state and federal level about marijuana policy. Public opinion and our understanding of marijuana have advanced in recent years, and I am eager to hear feedback from Lieutenant Governor Fetterman’s listening tour of the Commonwealth.”

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