Alex Popoff is among the many that have rejected pharmaceuticals for the relief offered by medical marijuana.
The former Marco-ite was prescribed a 17-21-pill regimen of medications while in the U.S. Air Force, following two failed surgeries to correct back injuries sustained in a training accident. He was left with stomach issues and crippling anxiety, while still experiencing chronic pain and the danger of opioid addiction.
“With my mental health and physical health deteriorating, I was prescribed all sorts of benzodiazepines (used primarily to treat anxiety), opioids, stimulants; a cocktail to try and get me to be able to continue to serve,” said the 23-year-old, who now lives just off-island. “It’s a one-size-fits-all approach, but it doesn’t work for everyone.”
In the end, he found he could no longer perform his job as a military policeman or his next assignment in human resources. He received a medical retirement from the Air Force in January, after five years of service, having enlisted immediately following his graduation from Lely High School.
January is also when he received what he says has been the key to treating his symptoms without the negative side effects of the pharmaceuticals he’d been taking, a State of Florida medical marijuana card.
“I take cannabis in a non-psychoactive manner, CBD (cannabidiol, a derivative of the low-THC hemp plant) oil, and it has zero intoxicating effects,” said Popoff. “In that way, it’s an anti-inflammatory, it’s an analgesic, it settles my stomach, it clears my head and it’s great for anxiety. I’ve had terrible anxiety and the only thing that’s helped it so far is marijuana.”
Florida voters approved Amendment 2, which legalized medical marijuana, in November of 2016. The legislation enables people with medical conditions such as cancer, HIV and AIDS, epilepsy, glaucoma, PTSD, ALS, Parkinson’s disease and more, or with advanced terminal illnesses diagnosed by a physician, to use cannabis to alleviate symptoms.
To be eligible, residents must be treated by a physician qualified by the program, who can provide the recommendation needed to apply for what is formally known as a Compassionate Use Registry Identification Card.
Smoking the cannabis is banned by state law, so it can only be consumed as edibles, or by using vaping, oils, sprays or pills. And the physician-directed order for the medication can only be filled at licensed medical marijuana treatment centers.
“I immediately did it as soon as I was free from the restrictions of the Air Force and I’m also off prescription medications for all ailments,” said Popoff. “I haven’t taken a Tylenol, I haven’t taken an opioid; nothing. I’ve found a strain (of marijuana) through the dispensary that I like (“Trulieve” in North Fort Myers) that can help with a variety of things.”
He received his card from a doctor with DocMJ, a New Port Richey based company started by former Marco resident Zach Zelner that has clinics in Fort Myers and five other Florida cities.
There are two medical marijuana dispensaries in Lee County, and Bonita Springs City Council has approved to allow them there. However, the Collier County commissioners are still debating whether to follow suit, which frustrates Popoff, who wants greater access for people in need, locally and nationwide.
“I went into the Air Force and was prescribed medications that hurt, rather than help me and when I got out I was able to choose marijuana and I’m thankful to Florida for allowing me to do so,” he said “But the law here isn’t perfect. Collier County is anti-marijuana, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. Otherwise we’d have dispensaries by now.”
Popoff also wants to see the military approve medical cannabis, so that injured active duty personnel and vets have an option other than pharmaceuticals, which in some cases can have psychoactive properties that can affect emotions.
He cited the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs July 2016 report that about 20 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide, something he described as a shame.
“Every day that the president chooses not to issue an executive order that could instantly make this decriminalized nationwide and let the state do their own thing, essentially, there are people dying every minute,” said Popoff. “I can’t promise marijuana would save every person, but even if it’s just one, that instantly makes this argument valid. It’s not an opinion at this point. It’s a fact that nobody would die from it and if that’s not something that the state of Florida or Marco Island or Collier County or Naples [finds important]; if they’re not willing to take that risk and allow more people access and allow dispensaries, I’d tell them to their faces that they’re idiots.”
He’s been expressing his opinion and promoting the legalization cause on his Facebook account, networking with nationwide organizations such as “Buds for Vets,” which has a Florida branch, attending legalization-focused conventions in the state and connecting with other disabled vets who use medical marijuana.
“I encourage everyone to support it in their own way,” said Popoff. “It doesn’t have to be on social media, it doesn’t have to be money. Just talk to people if they’re willing to listen.”
Popoff said his parents, Rob and Colleen, are supportive of his legal cannabis regimen and his advocacy and he’s unconcerned about whether he might face a backlash from people who hold an opposite view.
“I really don’t care at all,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing this publicly. Frankly, I’m not concerned about anyone who doesn’t agree with me.”
He entered the military with thoughts of a long career and perhaps retiring from the service. Today he’s finishing up an associate degree in crime scene technology at Florida SouthWestern State College, with plans to earn degrees in toxicology and horticulture that he’ll put to use in the medical marijuana industry.
Popoff is willing to offer advice to anyone interested in getting a medical marijuana card.
“If I can’t help them, I’ll point them in the direction of a doctor who can help them get a recommendation,” he said. He can be reached at Popoffaa@gmail.com.
For more information about Florida’s medical marijuana program, visit www.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/office-of-medical-marijuana-use/.