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by John Lopez, Springfield

To call medical marijuana a lifesaver for me and countless of my fellow veterans is no exaggeration.

As a former Army combat engineer and Afghanistan War veteran, I use medical cannabis for back and neck pain as well as a liver condition that (thankfully) prevents me from taking powerful, potentially addictive pain pills that can also fog the mind.

At Old Route 66 Wellness, the pair of retail cannabis dispensaries I own in Ozark and Springfield, veterans make up a significant cohort of our customers.

A generation of former soldiers now struggles with addiction, PTSD, suicidal risk and other mental health issues. I’ve made it my business to ensure that these patriots here in Missouri have access to safe, effective, licensed, taxed and regulated plant medicine — a far healthier alternative than opioids and other powerful narcotics that can lead to addiction, if not accidental but fatal overdoses.

John Lopez of Old Route 66 Wellness. (Photo provided)

Helping southwest Missouri patients access medical cannabis is just one part of the healing journey, and an extension of our ongoing commitment  to supporting Missouri veterans.

That commitment began with K9s for Camo, a nonprofit which pairs rescue dogs with vets as a way to assist with and treat mobility restrictions, seizures, diabetic alerts, PTSD and traumatic brain injury and ease the wounded warriors’ adjustment to civilian life.

Even though legal medical cannabis has been enshrined in our state Constitution since 2018, many Missourians remain unaware that a dedicated, 4 percent state sales tax is set aside for veteran services.

That money goes to the Missouri Veterans Commission, where every additional dollar is needed to cover the unexpected, pandemic-driven cost increases of providing housing and health care to our state’s most vulnerable veterans.

As of mid-May, the state reported about $14 million had been distributed to the Veterans Commission, based on about $335 million in sales since October 2020.

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Veterans aren’t the only cannabis consumers whose patient profiles might surprise.

According to the state Department of Health and Senior Services, patients ages 40-50 are the leading customer age group, followed by the AARP-eligible crowd, aka those ages 50-60.

The data makes clear what those of us in the industry have long known: most of the nearly 200,000 Missourians now certified as patients or caregivers are middle-aged adults in need of cannabis as medicine to treat ailments, not young adults driven to bend the rules to use marijuana recreationally.

Those patient stats, by the way, put our state among the top 8, by enrollment, among the 37 states to have approved medical cannabis. Further fueling the industry’s impact: more than 8,500 new jobs have been created by this industry, DHSS reports.

A word about access: Missouri’s ample number of retail dispensaries aren’t just clustered in and around St. Louis and Kansas City, or even up in Columbia or here in Springfield. By law, the state’s 200-plus outlets are equally divided among each of our eight congressional districts.

In practical terms, that means patients in places like Hayti, Hermann, Lebanon, Moberly, St. Robert, Hannibal and Warrensburg don’t have to drive 25 or 50 miles for their medicine.

Pricing is also patient-friendly, especially when compared to high-tax, cannabis-legal states such as neighboring Illinois. With 60-plus certified cannabis growers and 85 licensed manufacturers statewide, competition has driven the cost of an eighth-ounce of cannabis flower or a 10-pack of edibles — standard purchases for many — to as low as $20.

Against this backdrop of industry and patient growth, a new campaign to legalize marijuana for adult use in Missouri could soon be certified for the November general election ballot.

The Legal Missouri 2022 coalition is confident of its chances, knowing well that public sentiment is on its side. The winning 2018 medical marijuana initiative passed with almost two-thirds of the vote, while a recent survey of Missouri voters found that 62 percent support for adult-use legalization.

A wider market means sales can be expected to more than double, and the higher tax rate on adult-use sales (6 percent versus the 4 percent tax on medical sales) means an influx of tens of millions more dollars each year for sorely needed, underfunded public services. That includes veterans care, as well as drug abuse treatment and public defender services.

Equally important, legalizing marijuana in our state will give a fresh start to the many Missourians whose previous criminal convictions for a now-legal substance will be automatically expunged.

From health care to job creation to the economy, medical marijuana has transformed Missouri over the past several years. As a veteran, business owner and southwest Missourian, I look forward to breaking down even more barriers on the road ahead.

John Lopez owns several businesses in the Springfield area, including Old Route 66 Wellness. He is a combat veteran best known in southwest Missouri as the founder of K9s for Camo, a nonprofit that pairs rescue dogs with veterans.