To hear Iraq veteran Stephen Mandile tell it, his recovery from a suicide attempt and opioid addiction started when he and his wife sat down in 2015 to discuss money.
“Are we ready to pay for more medicine?” Mandile recalled asking. He suffered severe pain from injuring his spinal cord in a Humvee crash and received free opioids from the Department of Veterans Affairs. He wanted to switch to medical marijuana — but the change could cost his family $1,500 a week since the VA wouldn’t pay for the federally illegal drug.
Now, Mandile, 41, says he enjoys life again thanks to cannabis. He’s involved with a new nonprofit, Alternative Treatment for Veterans, that launched Friday along with the Massachusetts chapter of the Disabled American Veterans to research veterans’ marijuana use and advocate for their expanded access to cannabis.
“Veterans are promised an earned benefit” of medical care, Mandile said. “They should not have to worry about finances when they’re trying to heal and start their recovery.”
At a Friday news conference at the State House, the new group announced its first research project starting Sunday: an anonymous online survey asking veterans about their use of marijuana and other drugs, and the benefits or negative effects.
It’s a starting point for future research that will likely delve deeper into the science behind cannabis’s therapeutic potential for conditions common among veterans, such as pain, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression, said Marion McNabb, CEO of Cannabis Community Care and Research Network.
“We have to think about cannabis as a tool in the public health toolkit,” McNabb said. “You can’t replace all medications with cannabis, but it is worthy of inquiry under good scientific and clinical supervision.”
In Massachusetts, veterans are three times more likely than the rest of the population to die of an opioid overdose, according to a Department of Public Health report last year. That’s a higher disparity than nationwide.
Until a few years ago, published reports show, the VA heavily prescribed opioid painkillers to treat chronic pain. About 60 percent of veterans returning from Middle East deployments and 50 percent of older veterans suffer chronic pain, according to the VA.
The new nonprofit’s research will be used to advocate for state and federal policies to expand veterans’ ability to obtain marijuana, McNabb said.
Medical marijuana can provide symptom relief because it contains compounds called cannabinoids, which can act to balance the body’s natural endocannabinoid system, which regulates mood, sleep, and pain, said Dr. Staci Gruber, director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery at McLean Hospital, who is advising the nonprofit.
But, she said, the medical community has more questions than answers because of the lack of validated studies.
“Massachusetts should be a leader in medical cannabis research,” Gruber said. “It’s my hope we’re able to move the ball down the field in a way that adds meaningfully to the conversation in the country and the world.”
Federal marijuana decriminalization would be most effective in enabling the VA to cover marijuana costs, Mandile said, but in its absence, there are other possible reforms. Through his efforts, he said, eight of the state’s cannabis retailers offer discounts to disabled veterans.
Massachusetts could also enact a law similar to one in Illinois, where veterans can receive a medical marijuana card simply by submitting VA records, Mandile said.
On Friday, Cannabis Control Commissioner Kay Doyle teared up as she recalled having to avoid the topic of battle around her grandfather, a World War I veteran.
“There was nothing I could do to treat the wounds I couldn’t see, but even as a young child, I could feel,” Doyle said. “That is why I am so grateful that Alternative Treatment for Veterans has been created. . . . We must do our best to explore all treatment options.”
Keith Cooper, CEO of Revolutionary Clinics, said his dispensaries in Somerville and Cambridge serve nearly 500 veterans.
“This is long overdue,” Cooper said. “The industry needs more credible information and research to reduce the stigma of cannabis use.”
Steve Creedon, 67, a Navy veteran who served in Puerto Rico during the Vietnam era, attended the event Friday. He used marijuana for 25 years to treat anxiety and pain related to a foot injury.
“My real hope would be that this evidence persuades the federal government to decriminalize marijuana and turn it into the medicine that we’ve all discovered now.”
The group asks veterans to take its survey starting Sunday at cannacenterofexcellence.org/veteran.