Jeff Staker has lived a life of purpose: 11 years as a Marine Corp sniper, a drill instructor, father of four and grandfather of five, and the 51-year-old now serves as a firefighter for the U.S. government in Indiana. He’s also a leading figure in the fight for medical cannabis access in his home state as the head of Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis. And while Staker is sort of an unlikely advocate – self-described as a “conservative liberal” – he’s motivated by letters of support from veterans and bad public health legislation, namely the federal Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Staker has quickly caught the attention of both lawmakers and activists in the state.
“When I get up in front of a politician, I’m not afraid you know, I’m right up in their face,” he said in an interview with Ganjapreneur. “But they need it. I’m not there to beg or ask them for anything – I’m there to tell them.”
Currently, there are 13 bills related to cannabis stuck in legislative purgatory in Indiana. They include an industrial hemp bill, a proposal allowing patients to seek and possess medical cannabis from other states, a measure to set up a system allowing low-THC cannabis use for people with epilepsy, another would provide an affirmative defense to possess CBD if the person or child has been diagnosed with certain medical conditions, and eight more related to broader medical cannabis legalization under varying schemes for varying conditions. None of those bills have been moved past a first reading or out of the committee they were referred to. Staker thought that bills dealing with medical treatments would go to a health committee; instead, most are moved to the Corrections and Criminal Law Senate Committee who on Jan. 13 held a hearing on SB.15, which would allow hemp oil therapies for children suffering from intractable epilepsy.
“There’s a reason why these certain bills go to certain committees,” he said. “They’re trying to get them to die out real fast.”
For Staker, who hasn’t consumed any cannabis in 35 years, medical cannabis access is not a political issue – it’s a moral one. In his conversations with high-powered lawmakers, Staker said he is often met with the same excuse – “we’re so conservative.”
“Well, I say ‘If we’re so conservative doesn’t that mean that we have compassion for our fellow man?’” he opined.
After the election, during which Republican Eric Holcomb was elected governor, Staker sent all 150 of the state legislators a 350-page packet that included medical cannabis research in an effort to get lawmakers “to do their homework.” According to Staker, the support for comprehensive medical cannabis is overwhelming in the ‘conservative state’ – which is not afforded a ballot initiative process. Last month, the Indiana American Legion passed a resolution of support for medical cannabis access in the state, which was signed by both the Department Commander Chairman James B. May, and the Chairman of the Rehabilitation Commission Rodney Strong.
“Three out of four Hoosiers are supportive of medical cannabis; over 80 percent of our veterans are supportive of medical cannabis,” he said. “Our representation within the statehouse needs to show that.”
To his election, Holcomb brought with him a plan to fight the opioid abuse, and former Goodwill president Jim McClelland as executive director for Substance Abuse, Prevention and Enforcement. Staker said he supports the executive’s plan but has argued to McClelland that medical cannabis use has shown promise as a way to help people not only manage chronic pain conditions better than prescription opioids, but as a method for weening people off of those drugs.
“If [the governor] doesn’t do it right and he tries to restrict the opiates out there that have already been prescribed he’s going to have problems,” Staker said. “You’re going to have people trying to feed their addiction, whether it’s rob a pharmacy or go out on the streets to get heroin.”
Staker wants a program that lets patients and doctors decide what works, one that allows children to have access to drugs that contain both CBD and THC, one that allows veterans to talk to their Veterans Administration doctors about using the drug, and provides for cannabis therapies to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. “There’s veterans out there self-medicating with alcohol…marijuana is a safer alternative. And I’ve talked to vets who are using cannabis illegally and saying just that.”
In December, Hoosier Veterans for Medical Cannabis released a 15-second ad spot which claims “every 30 minutes” a veteran dies from a drug overdose, but in states with medical cannabis the numbers have dropped 40 percent.
“Death ground is where you put an army at a position where their back is up against the wall,” Staker says, alluding to Sun Tzu’s Art of War. “That’s how I view this movement here in Indiana…If we don’t do it right veterans are going to keep dying.”
Some national veterans groups have given Staker the “thumbs up,” but “they are not the backbone” of the fight in Indiana, he said, clarifying media reports that misrepresent the role national veterans groups are playing in the ongoing legalization debate in Indiana.
“Obviously in a lot of states [cannabis] is still illegal so they don’t want a bad rep in that sense,” he said.
He indicated that the inaction by the legislature might force him to use “the last bullet in his magazine” – a lawsuit against the state asserting that prohibiting an initiative process violates the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He was born and raised in Indiana and doesn’t want to leave his home state in order to enjoy his upcoming retirement.
“Push comes to shove I might leave, but I might just join those veterans that already do it,” he said. “…People at work joke with me about what I want for retirement, I say ‘All I really need is a legal doob and a bag of Doritos.’”