Veterans who turn to the military for help starting up cannabis businesses are turned away because of the federal ban on the drug. Recognizing a need, Dick Wilkinson founded the New Mexico Veterans Cannabis Alliance to help connect veteran entrepreneurs with the resources they need to get their cannabis businesses up and running. We sat down with Wilkinson to discuss the alliance and why it’s necessary.

The Paper.: Should veterans have access to medical cannabis?

Wilkinson: Yes, absolutely. Veterans should have access, and it should be explored and encouraged—not just as an alternative medicine, but as a first round of medicine for certain issues that veterans face. A lot of times, veterans are still working adults—even myself, I’m retired but I’m in my second career now. Being able to have access to cannabis is very helpful for medical needs in that you can decide when to dose, and you can somewhat control the side effects based on when you dose. Veterans are often given a lot of drugs—both pain prescriptions and mental health prescriptions—that have 24/7 effects and side effects. I really feel like veterans who are working adults would benefit from cannabis in that they can choose when to dose and when to control those side effects. They won’t impact you all the time, so you have more control over your care.

I’ve been a medical cannabis patient for about three years. Since I’ve received my card, I’ve continued to advocate for other veterans—my peers that I meet every day—to say, “I use this. I have a good job. I’m doing life just fine. So maybe you should consider it as well.”

Can you tell us a little bit about the NMVCA and what it does?

I founded the New Mexico Veterans Cannabis Alliance just about a year ago. So far in the last year, we’ve been very focused on helping veterans start their cannabis businesses. We’ve been entrepreneur focused. We have veterans all over the state—literally in every corner of the state, not just in the Albuquerque-Santa Fe corridor—and we’ve got one company that’s licensed right now with a couple others that are right behind them.

We’re a network of resources and support throughout the state. If a veteran reaches out to one of the alliance members and says, “I want to get started and open a dispensary in a certain town,” then we help them learn the rules and regulations they need to know about. Do you need a consultant or maybe an advisor for retrofitting your building? We can help you find that consultant. Do you need somebody to help you understand how to file paperwork with your local offices? We’ve got people that can help review that paperwork once you put it together.

It’s free. We’re not a registered nonprofit; we’re a veteran volunteer organization. Whenever we get a request from someone, we try and help them find whatever resource they need. Then we take note so that when somebody else asks the same thing a couple of weeks later, we have a pipeline directly to that resource.

Why was it necessary for you to create an organization like this?

I thought, “If I wanted to open a business in cannabis, where would I turn to for help?” And I knew that I would turn to the federal government resources that help veterans. There’s job training programs that exist for us. We can go back to any military base and ask for help. Well, if you go back to that military base after you’ve retired and say, “I want to open a cannabis business,” they’ll say “We’re happy for you, but we can’t help you because we’re federally funded.”

When I retired, I was warned that if you want to get involved with cannabis, these resources won’t be available for you. They just put it out there. If there are other veterans in the state that need this kind of help, they’re going to go knock on that same door, and they’re not going to get the support that they need. So we needed to create an organization that can be there when they get turned away from door A. I said, “Let’s be door B, and let’s be there, ready to help.”

And the good news is that door A now understands that we exist. The veteran support agencies—both the cabinet secretary and base resources—I’ve talked to them. They know that we’re here. They know that we’re available to help, and they do send clients our way.

Do veterans face any legal problems that civilians don’t have to worry about?

We do rely on the federal government as retirees. Years after you’ve separated from service, you probably still have a relationship with the military or the federal government. It might be for medical support or maybe your retirement. The good news is is that you really don’t have any overt restrictions that say you cannot do this, or they’re going to take some kind of benefit away.

There’s no rule or law out there right now that says they’ll take away your retirement check or deny you medical care if you’re honest about your cannabis use or if you’re involved in the cannabis industry. There’s myths around that, and unfortunately people believe that and stay away from the industry, because they think that their retirement check will be taken away or that the VA hospital is going to reject them the next time they show up for care. But that’s not true. There’s not really any harder challenges for military folks to get started in this industry, other than learning the truth and overcoming some of those myths.

To contact the New Mexico Veterans Cannabis Alliance, reach out at facebook.com/NMVCA/ or email dickwilkinson@gmail.com