Beyond their current offer, the team at AWC has supported veterans for years with therapy and no-cost services
Kathleen McKinnon helped organize the first event in Massachusetts where veterans could get free access to state-issued medical marijuana cards.
“It was in May 2015,” she recalled. At the time, the commonwealth’s med program was still administered by the Department of Public Health, and was even more cumbersome and expensive to access than it is today under the purview of the Cannabis Control Commission.
McKinnon continued, “We had people coming from as far as Pittsfield.”
In that first outing, her team processed about 50 veterans—getting them the necessary physician’s endorsement, signing them up in the DPH system online, and paying the associated costs and fees.
Working with different enterprises through the years that offer Mass medical cannabis recommendations for a fee, McKinnon said she always designated opportunities for veterans to get help free of charge. The most registrants they ever processed in a day, she said, was 109.
In her current role as president of Alternative Wellness Centers, she continues the work she started nearly a decade ago. Along with AWC vice president Rebecca Carreiro, McKinnon offered free medical certifications to vets for a month when they opened their first office, in December 2019, then again in May 2020. And coinciding with Veterans Day this month, they’re waiving their $150 fee for virtual or in-person appointments at their Worcester or Hadley locations through Nov. 22.
“It’s a group that’s near and dear to us,” McKinnon said. “My father was a Korean War veteran, and we see the detrimental effects of prescription medicine on veterans day in and day out.”
AWC also offers services including CBD massage and vitamin infusion therapy, and has provided more than $150,00 in free veteran certifications to date, thanks to buy-in from their team of five doctors and nurse practitioners. McKinnon said “a lot of them volunteer their time, and volunteer a certain monetary amount.”
“The other therapeutic services,” she added, “they all go well with cannabis. We see a lot of PTSD veterans. It’s all part of that mind, body, and soul connection.”
According to the group Disabled American Veterans, “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) impacts 11-20% of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, approximately 12% of Gulf War veterans, and 15% of Vietnam veterans.” At the same time, while cannabis can help with many related ailments, according to the Cannabis Control Commission, “veterans in Massachusetts continue to face significant barriers primarily due to the existing federal illegality of cannabis.”
Out of a veteran population with more than 300,000 individuals, 71,000 are enrolled in the VA system, with “just under 11,000 vets in Mass having a 100% service-connected disability rating designating them as permanently and totally disabled.” Furthermore, “U.S. military veterans have been heavily impacted by the opioid overdose crisis, with drug overdose mortality rates increasing by 53% from 2010–2019.”
In order to address those terrifying numbers, earlier this year, CCC members endorsed “expanding the definition of ‘qualifying patient’ and ‘debilitating medical condition’ to help reduce financial burdens and barriers to medical marijuana access for Massachusetts veterans.” But while it’s easier to qualify, and although Massachusetts did away with registration fees on its end, you must still “receive a written recommendation from a Certifying Health Care Provider to become a Patient of the program,” per Mass regulations.
Since the pandemic, access has also increased due to the state allowing people to obtain their recommendations via telehealth consultations. That’s great, McKinnon said, but she said there is also a benefit to bringing multiple vets in at the same time, as they did in years past.
“We would get veterans from WWII and the Korean War and other wars all together in the same room, and the overall energy was there, the healing that they give one another,” she said. “Even though they’re hurting, they’re giving healing to one another.”
With the opportunity like AWC is offering this month, their goal is to get veterans on a cycle, so they can recertify during their free consult period next November, and be able to avoid having their state medical card lapse.
“We will also help them register with the state and anything else they need [to get access to medical cannabis],” McKinnon said. “That’s all part of the service we provide.”
Veterans can book an appointment through the Alternative Wellness Centers site or call 617-420-7890 or 413-270-0451.