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Ben Marksmeier has shown bravery in a number of ways, including his service in Iraq with the Army National Guard.

This is another way: He has chosen to talk openly about his use of an illegal drug, medical cannabis, to ease the extreme pain he inherited when part of his right leg was blown off and the left one mangled by a roadside bomb that hit his convoy south of Baghdad.

Marksmeier, 30, of Fremont, went with Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue last fall to press conferences and media interviews in several Nebraska towns to help promote the need for Garrett's bill (LB643).  

People of Nebraska need the opportunity to choose, he said. He'd like to have the option to choose cannabis rather than oxycodone or methadone or other powerful, addicting, full-of-chemicals drugs for his pain. 

On July 31, 2006, just 2½ months before he was set to come home from his deployment in Iraq, Marksmeier and Josh Ford of Pender -- both with the Nebraska Army National Guard’s 189th Transportation Company -- were returning to Tallil Air Base after hauling cargo in southern Iraq.

A roadside bomb went off near the town of An Numaniyah, tearing through their truck “literally like a hot knife goes through butter,” Marksmeier said in a previous Journal Star story.

The bomb took Marksmeier’s right leg above the knee and tore up his left leg. It also took his left hamstring, and riddled his lower body with shrapnel.

He doesn't like to complain, he said this week. "I don't look back, I always look forward."

But when asked, he will tell you he has a lot of pain, not only from the injuries, the shrapnel, but from what a prosthetic leg can do to his back and hips, and from pressure, tightness, aching and nerve damage. 

At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Marksmeier was on a lot of prescription pills, he said. He was grateful for some of them. But some turned on him. 

"They got real bad, tore up my soul, me physically and emotionally, I mean it was horrible," he said. 

He knew he had to get out of "that pill cloud," he said. 

"You're fuzzy. You're hazy. You're not right. ... My focus, my drive. It just wasn't there."

For a time, he was addicted to oxycodone. Getting off of it gave him the shakes and the sweats. "I felt like a damn druggie." 

While in the hospital, he said, he lost two friends to overdoses of strong pain killers.

Marijuana was never his thing in his younger days, Marksmeier said. But a friend offered him some when he was on leave from Walter Reed. It made him feel better, like it might really help. 

"I just threw the pills away after awhile," he said. 

People have misconceptions about cannabis, Marksmeier said. But he believes there are fewer side effects, compared to the side effects he hears are attached to the prescription drugs he has taken. 

"It really, truly is a medicine, actually helps people," he said. 

He understands cannabis won't cure him, won't bring his leg back or take his pain completely away. 

But it helps him live his life more naturally, he said, helps with his incurable chronic pain. 

It's a Catch-22. He doesn't like breaking the law. But he also wants to live a productive life and not have his family see him in bed the rest of his life.

He believes the sale and use of medical cannabis should be regulated so it works consistently, and is monitored and taxed. He would like to be able to talk to his doctor about it, to be able to track his use of it and how it's working.

Talking about it publicly is a way, he believes, to help people. That's how he felt about being a soldier. And that's how he feels about this.

"There's too many hard-working people, Americans, Nebraskans, that need this," he said. "Why would you make the good people who made Nebraska beautiful suffer in pain?"

That's how Garrett, a conservative, retired 26-year Air Force intelligence officer who has spent the past 12 years working as an intelligence contractor, approaches it, too.

He introduced the medical marijuana bill in the 2015 session. It passed first reading on May 12, but on May 27, Garrett received unanimous consent to hold the bill and carry it over to 2016.

There were just too many questions from other senators on the bill, including on its classification by the federal Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin, LSD, ecstasy and peyote.

They also questioned how the medical cannabis manufacture and distribution centers would be regulated, and how it would be prescribed and monitored.

Garrett said people frequently tell him they are self medicating with marijuana, for cancer, other illnesses and medical conditions. 

"It breaks my heart ... the people who desperately needed this, the people who are sick and ailing and out of options that just stole my heart," he said as he commented on the motion to delay the bill. 

He promised to continue the fight for the bill in the 2016 session. "We'll be bigger and better and stronger than ever," he said.

He will make it his priority bill again. And it will come up on second round debate.

Over the interim, Garrett traveled to Minnesota, a state that legalized medical cannabis in 2014 for treatment of a list of illnesses and conditions including severe muscle spasms, cancer, certain terminal and chronic diseases and epilepsy.

It was the 22nd U.S. state to enact a medical marijuana program. About 5,000 people were expected to have legal access to compounds made from cannabis plants. 

"We all want to be good stewards and promote responsible use of medical cannabis," he said. "That is why we are following the Minnesota model."

With Minnesota's program, he said, dosages are determined by scientific research. Law enforcement there has reported no issues with patients or manufacturers.

"The No. 1 takeaway is it works. There are no major glitches," he said. 

More than 600,000 veterans are being prescribed medical heroin, in the form of opioid-based drugs, he said. And "we have seen the failure."

More people in America now die of prescription drug overdoses than in car accidents, Garrett said. And 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

"While America deals with its self-inflicted opioid/heroin crisis, why not grant veterans who suffer from PTSD and incurable pain the ability to use cannabis ... ," he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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