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"War Veterans Fight to Clear Stigma around Medical Marijuana" article

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He has served in one capacity or another in seven conflicts, killed and captured countless enemy fighters and was a founding member of Canada’s top-secret counterterrorism unit, Joint Task Force 2.

But Kevin Whitenect, 48, is coming out of the shadows for his newest mission: that of “brand ambassador” for a Toronto-based medical marijuana company, CannaConnect.

Along Highway 401, a short drive from CFB Trenton, the Canadian military’s main transportation hub, retired Warrant Officer Robert Kennedy is also settling into an unlikely role.

After a 28-year career with the Royal Canadian Dragoons came to an end last summer due to a mix of post-traumatic stress, chronic pain and OxyContin prescriptions, he found himself one morning this week helping to organize a cooking class showing ailing veterans how to incorporate marijuana into their culinary routines.

“We’re looking at the longevity of people because if you can eat certain stuff and it’s not brownies and sweets—it’s healthy stuff,” said Kennedy, the volunteer manager with Marijuana for Trauma Trenton, one of several outlets the New Brunswick-based company operates in eastern Canada. “You can put it in a shake and the troops are happy, the vets are happy—and they’re healthy.”

Kevin Whitenect, a founding member of the Canadian military's counter-terrorism unit, has become a "brand ambassador" for Toronto-based medical marijuana company CannaConnect.

Both men are at the sharp end of the spear, as soldier-types like to say of those headed into battle. Theirs is a sort of rescue mission, with the goal of clearing the stigma around medical marijuana in order to help their ill and injured comrades whether from the Afghan war or from as far back as deployment to Bosnia in the late 1990s.

But they are also on the front lines of a booming and largely untapped market, acting as agents of companies that are looking for former soldiers who are covered in full by the federal government for medicinal marijuana prescriptions.

In the two years that Veterans Affairs Canada has been reimbursing clients with a prescription for medicinal marijuana, there has been a nearly sixfold increase in the number of cases, a departmental official told the Star.

But the cost last year of paying for prescribed pot topped $5 million, 12 times higher than the previous year, mostly because of increases in the price of marijuana. The increasing popularity could see those numbers continue to increase.

Shane Urowitz, CannaConnect’s vice-president of business development, says his upstart company is bringing in about 25 new veterans each month from as far afield as Sherbrooke, Que., Sudbury, Ont., and Oromocto, N.B.

“One guy becomes a client. He wakes up in a few weeks or a couple of months and his life is a bit better and he tells his buddy at the legion or in the motorcycle group or whatever it is, and you get pockets of these guys,” he said.

In most cases, those veterans turning to medical marijuana have run out of patience and hope in the pharmaceutical cocktails made up of sleeping pills, antidepressants and antipsychotics that may treat their symptoms but can also create other problems, not least of which is dependency, Urowitz said.

“They’re on a Skittles bag worth of pills and they’re depressed, they’re drooling, there’s no quality of life there.”

The problems of the current regime for veterans suffering from battlefield injuries range from depression, amplified by years of fighting for adequate care and benefits, to suicide when soldiers lose hope and slip through the cracks.

Despite those well-documented problems, the medical marijuana companies are still encountering reluctant troops who have been told only about the evils of illegal substances.

Marijuana has been cleared for medical use by Health Canada and is even set to be legalized by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government. But current military health directives still stress the lack of scientifically proven benefits or established dosages and the risks associated with marijuana use by serving members.

Just last May, Erin O’Toole, the former Conservative Veteran’s Affairs Minister — an air force helicopter pilot — said there was “no clinical support” for the claim that pot is an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress.

The Canadian Medical Association agrees. In its latest policy statement on medical marijuana, the national body said that physicians are worried about the lack of regulator oversight and research into safety, dosages and side-effects that have been done before the drug was authorized for use.

“It’s not a cure for PTSD, it’s not a cure for chronic pain,” Urowitz admits. “But it’s the best damn Band-Aid they’ve been given so far.”

Companies focused on putting potential patients in contact with doctors and helping with the raft of mandatory paperwork under the federal Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations have taken a range of approaches — both traditional and novel — in order to drum up business among veterans.

That includes organizing walk-in clinics, publishing newspaper advertisements and even touring a camouflage-painted vehicle around Ontario bases with promotional T-shirts and other freebies.

Most veterans turning to medical marijuana have run out of patience with the pharmaceutical cocktails made up of sleeping pills, antidepressants and antipsychotics.

One firm that specializes in serving veterans, Cole Harbour, N.S.-based Trauma Healing Centers has a deal with OrganiGram, a licensed, publicly traded medicinal marijuana producer, to provide 1,500 kilograms of pot for its patients this year. The amount doubles to 3,000 kilograms in 2016 and will increase by 20 per cent each following year for the next decade.

All that is to show that this is big business, and it is only growing. Key to the companies’ plans for tapping the veteran market is putting other veterans prominently in the shop window.

That’s where Whitenect, who was a founding member of JTF2, the elite special operations force created in 1993, comes in.

“I’ve been on pretty much every major operation the unit’s been on. Both those that are on the books and those that are off the books — that people aren’t aware of,” he said.

“I’ve been in seven wars. I have been bloodied in battle and I’ve killed in battle. I’ve had men die around me.”

He has no injuries or condition requiring medical marijuana, but said that he has seen enough ailing veterans in his post-military work as a private contractor, a counterterrorism trainer and a service-dog handler that he jumped at the opportunity to help out.

“I like the idea that guys can find an alternate solution to their chronic pain — physical and emotional — and get functional so they can get up in the day, do what they’ve got to do, get focused, maybe run a small business, or maybe it’s just to go out and buy groceries,” he said.

Urowitz hopes that Whitenect’s involvement with the company acts as a “sticker of approval” for others.

“Now we’re able to say not only is it OK but I can put you on a call with a top-tier officer from JTF2,” he said. “When they hear of someone with Kevin’s pedigree endorsing what they’re doing, it’s taking down that barrier.”


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