BOSTON — For the second day in a row, Stephen Mandile stood across from the State House Tuesday with a handmade sign, one side bearing the words "Opiates kill" and the other saying "Vets die as we wait Gov. Baker."
Mandile, who served in the U.S. Army and Army National Guard, said he will camp out on Beacon Hill until Gov. Charlie Baker meets with him to discuss veterans' access to medical marijuana.
Tim Buckley, a Baker spokesman, said Tuesday afternoon that members of the governor's constituent services staff had spoken with Mandile.
"I'm out here until he talks," Mandile said. "I'm going homeless until he speaks, until he at least makes an appointment or lets me make an appointment to come in and see him with all my information and everything. I mean, I'm wearing the same clothes I wore yesterday. That hasn't happened since I was in Iraq."
Mandile said he spent 10 years taking prescribed opiates, including fentanyl and oxycontin, after he was hurt serving in Iraq in 2005 and has since switched to medical marijuana. He said he wants to meet with the governor to discuss marijuana as an alternative to opioids and the obstacles veterans face in accessing medical marijuana.
Attacking the climbing rates of opioid misuse and addiction in the state has been a focus of Baker's since taking office last year. The governor has signed four opioid-related laws and made frequent, emotional calls to action against drug abuse and addiction. The most recent law, signed in March, includes a provision introduced by Baker limiting a first-time adult opiate prescription to a seven-day supply.
Calling for addiction prevention measures that "disrupt the status quo," Baker has criticized the frequency with which opioid medications are prescribed and worked with medical and dental schools to standardize the teaching of pain management practices.
Baker also opposes a ballot question legalizing marijuana use in general for those 21 and over in Massachusetts.
Mandile said he'd like to see the state help veterans get off opioid medications by making it easier for them to access medical marijuana.
With marijuana illegal at the federal level, the Department of Veterans Affairs prohibits VA doctors from recommending it to patients in states like Massachusetts that have medical marijuana programs.
"While the illnesses treatable with medical marijuana are limited by state law, the Baker-Polito Administration was pleased to have fixed the broken medical marijuana system allowing first time access for patients in Massachusetts," Baker press secretary Elizabeth Guyton said in a statement. "Through the Department of Veterans Services, the Commonwealth offers numerous programs and benefits, including access to the S.A.V.E. Program, and will continue to work with our federal partners to provide quality health care and services for our veterans and their families."
Massachusetts voters legalized medical marijuana in 2012 by approving a ballot question, and six dispensaries are open for sales throughout the state.
As of April 30, there were 24,196 active medical marijuana patients in the state and 149 certifying physicians in the state, according to Department for Public Health data.
The law allows registered patients to possess up to a 60-day supply of marijuana for medical use if they are diagnosed with "cancer, glaucoma, positive status for human immunodeficiency virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient's physician."
Nichole Snow, executive director of the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, said marijuana from a dispensary can cost $350 to $400 per ounce and veterans often pay out-of-pocket because the VA does not cover medical marijuana.
"They should be the last people who face this kind of obstruction," Snow said. "If those doctors at the VA had the option to talk about an alternative method of coping with pain or facing PTSD, at least the veterans would feel safer talking about it and feeling better."
Mandile founded an organization called Veterans Alternative Healing to help his peers access treatment like acupuncture, yoga and cannabis therapy. He said he would like to see medical marijuana made available to disabled veterans the same way other prescription drugs are, so that it is free to those classified by the VA as 100 percent disabled and available to others at a discount.
He said action taken at the state level could prompt the federal government to follow suit. "What are they going to do, kick Massachusetts out of America because they take care of their veterans?" he said. "The United States of 49 States and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts? I just think we can force the hand and make the change now instead of waiting."