Breaking through: Jason Crady is fighting to change the stigma of cannabis and mental health
Jason Crady’s group was one of Missouri’s winning applicants for dispensary licenses in 2020.
In March 2021, the first Missouri Wild Alchemy location opened in the St. Charles County suburb of O’Fallon. The group’s ownership is made up of family and includes a doctor of pharmacy, a principal engineer, and Crady himself – a firefighter and paramedic.
While many owners and operators, and even more employees, in the cannabis industry come from diverse and often unexpected backgrounds, Crady’s story and involvement in the medical cannabis industry often turns heads and opens eyes that have long been shut by stigma and rhetoric.
Crady began his career as a paramedic in rural Missouri, moving to the fire service in 2008 in St. Louis County. Over the last decade-plus, Crady rose through the ranks from private to captain and was recently promoted to the rank of Battalion Chief. In addition to his current roles with MWA and as Battalion Chief, Crady has been an active member of the union.
This platform and his role in the public sector have allowed Crady the opportunity to speak to and educate public leaders and civic professionals about cannabis in an ongoing effort to help create understanding and opportunity.
“I have been heavily involved in IAFF 2665 which has put me in a position to speak with a lot of the decision-makers throughout the region,” Crady said. “Everyone I’ve engaged with from chiefs to board directors to elected officials, they all agree on one thing – the mental health of first responders is something we need to address and not continue to ignore.”
Advocating for wellness
“When medical cannabis was brought to Missouri there was a lot of talk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),” Crady explained, “I am a first responder here in St. Louis County and have seen some of my brothers and sisters suffer from PTSD, I’ve also seen a lot of them sweep their PTSD under the rug and turn to alcohol and opiates.”
“The Fire service has a culture of bravado and ignoring mental health issues. In our culture mental health issues were seen as a sign of weakness, you never spoke of feelings or issues.”
Crady explained that the many first responders fear repercussions for discussing or addressing mental health issues, and feel it may prevent them from advancing in their career. That culture often creates a need for self-medicating, especially with alcohol or opiates, as a way of dealing with emotional turmoil rather than seeking help or counseling. That culture has bred disastrous results.
“First responders have a higher rate of divorce and have a lower life expectancy than the average adult. We also have a higher rate of cancer due to exposure.”
“Our area fire and EMS families have seen a large amount of suicide and we still didn’t really talk about it.”
“In 2016, the fire service had more suicides than line of duty deaths for the first time in our history,” Crady explained.
“These are things we are learning that cannabis can be helpful in treating and we are just now starting to be able to openly talk about and study. As a society that relies on evidence-based medicine, we are just in the infancy of cannabis study. I can’t even imagine where we will be in a few years.”
“The first responders that show up to run in when everyone else is running out need our help, they need to have access to cannabis.”
It is important to note that while medical cannabis is legal in Missouri, employment policies in most places, especially the public sector, have not caught up.
“It is important for everyone to know their employers’ policies concerning cannabis. Most Fire, EMS, and Police agencies have a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis, meaning our members risk losing their jobs if they use cannabis,” Crady continued. “This is something that must be addressed. We all tend to be reactionary and most agencies haven’t changed or even addressed these policies since medical cannabis came to the state. So even if a physician in the state of Missouri deems a first responder has a qualifying medical condition to receive a medical cannabis card, they are in jeopardy of losing their job.”
For Crady, the disconnect between the treatment of other prescribed medicines, self-medicating with alcohol, and the staunch opposition by some to medical marijuana is hard to reconcile. It’s part of why Crady is so vocal about his support of cannabis and doesn’t shy away from perceived hypocrisy. While Crady would love to see changes made in law to protect patients, his approach is to handle things at a local level and encourage leaders and businesses to affect immediate change.
“In politics, most of them don’t want to take a hard stand on a controversial topic in fear of offending some of their base of supporters. I think that is the biggest obstacle and one that won’t change any time soon,” Crady explained.
“Changing employment policies would allow law-abiding citizens to access cannabis without fear of losing their jobs. Cannabis is stigmatized as ‘lazy stoners’ which is the furthest thing from the truth. I know so many hard-working, creative, fun, loving people that use cannabis and our lives are better for knowing them. Even though medical cannabis is legal here a lot of people that could really benefit, such as first responders like myself, are prohibited from accessing this plant out of the fear of losing our jobs.”
“I have been asked by several agencies to speak to leadership regarding the benefits of cannabis for their members and how we can go about making that possible.”
Crady has traveled the state and country speaking to leaders about policy change for the betterment of all, but especially those who serve our communities.
Bridging the gap
Crady’s status as Battalion Chief and working relationship with other first responders also allows unique insight and access to a group that has historically been seen as out of touch or an oppositional force when it comes to cannabis – local police.
“Law enforcement officers are people just like me and you that are doing a job and providing for their families. They have rules and regulations, SOPs, and things they are required to do by their agencies,” Crady said.
“I was recently introduced to the chief of a local law enforcement agency via email,” Crady explained. “I offered to have the police force come into the dispensary for a meet and greet and training on the cannabis law and to answer any of the questions they may have had.” Crady said he never received a response.
“A few weeks ago we called in a suspicious vehicle in our parking lot and two patrol officers showed up and addressed our concern. Afterward, we invited them in. The officers were very professional and asked a lot of great questions.”
Crady says that when he inquired as to why no one from the department had accepted his offer, the officers were stunned.
“They had never gotten the information from their former chief,” Crady continued, “A break-down in communication or a chief that doesn’t believe in cannabis can affect the entire culture of a department and how the officers on the street respond to patients.” Crady says the key to closing that gap is in education and communication.
“These two officers left seeing their first patient card after touring our facility and having a professional experience. I hope that one by one we can change how everyone sees cannabis and its benefits.”
For his part, Crady is optimistic about what lies ahead.
“I’m not sure if it’s because Missouri legalized medical marijuana or the federal legalization of hemp – I will say, I feel that I have seen a positive shift in public perception of cannabis. There are a lot of people that are pro-cannabis that still aren’t vocal about it out of fear of losing their job or how others in their circle may see them,” Crady continued, “Now that people know I’m in the industry I have had a lot more people come and talk to me about cannabis.”
As for advocacy and education, Crady offers a final insight about successful engagement.
“Be professional and respect other people’s beliefs, I know I’m not going to change everyone’s opinion on cannabis and that is okay. I am going to keep doing what I think is right and continue to try to bring professionalism to cannabis and over time more and more people will feel comfortable coming out of the ‘canna closet’.”