In a sunlit picnic area behind a Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Santa Cruz, California, approximately 100 vets of varying ages are stepping up to a barbecue pit in single file. Spirits are high, thanks in no small part to the medical cannabis that’s being dispensed free of charge.
This medicine comes courtesy of SC Veterans Alliance (SCVA). Founded by two combat veterans in 2011, SCVA provides free medical cannabis to U.S. military veterans with conditions like PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and chronic pain.
SCVA member Ken Myers, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1970 to 1981, calls this organization “a godsend.”
“I’m on social security disability, and it barely covers the rent, so without this program, I wouldn’t be able to have my medicine,” he says.
Myers suffers from seizures, liver cancer, and Hepatitis C. “[Cannabis] helps with the seizures,” his wife Susan explains. “It helps him sleep, eat, and keep calm.”
Another Santa Cruz-based war veteran, George Davidson, uses medicine provided by SCVA and its members to relieve the pain from two herniated discs in his neck and a cracked, bulging disc in his lower lumbar.
“I went through the whole gamut with pain pills,” he states. “I was looking at getting surgery, and I started using CBD oil. I feel like it’s not just relieving my symptoms — I feel like it’s actually healing me.”
Davidson adds that six months ago, he was using a cane and taking pills such as hydrocodone, muscle relaxants, and ibuprofen. “Now I don’t use any of that stuff; I just use CBD and smoke flowers, and I’m at almost 100 percent,” he says. “After two years of using pharmaceutical poison, switching to CBD and THC, six months later, I’m not even thinking about getting surgery.”
SCVA’s founders, U.S. Army vet Jason Sweatt and U.S. Marine Corps vet Aaron Newsom, were both already cultivating cannabis when they met one another through a veterans’ organization in 2010. After bonding over their shared love of horticulture, they began giving a portion of their crops to a small group of fellow veterans each month.
“We started with less than a dozen veterans,” Newsom recalls. “Now we have, I believe, just over 280 veterans. It really started with trying to help a couple of older Vietnam vets we knew with supplementing the cost of their medicine.”
Newsom, whose 2002-2008 run in the Marine Corps included a tour of Afghanistan, says his interest in medical cannabis began with his own pursuit of recovery after he returned from a combat zone.
“I think a lot of us, getting back, really suffer from hypervigilance: just always feeling that something is going to happen; always feeling like you have to be on guard,” he offers. “You have to be aware of everything in a 360-degree plane; always sitting in the corner; always watching the door. Some of those pharmaceuticals that they give us help with that almost too much — almost to the point where you’re a zombie sitting on the couch, not caring about anything. Cannabis has been the only thing that hasn’t had any side effects that has really allowed me to not be in that state anymore, or at least know that there is no need to worry. Even if I am feeling myself in a bubble, feeling that anxiety attack coming on and feeling that hypervigilance start to build up, I’m definitely able to take a step back and realize that I’m here with my family, we’re home, we’re not anywhere that an IED [Improvised Explosive Device] is going to go off, mortar’s going to fly or something like that.”
Operations manager Jake Scallan, who joined the SCVA team in 2014 as facilitator of the Veterans Compassion Program, has similar comments about the calming effects of cannabis.
“I used to feel like I had a chip on my shoulder, and I would always be mad about something,” he notes. “Now I know what my triggers are and what causes me to get stressed out, anxious, mean, and angry. Cannabis really helps me notice those, pick up on them, and handle them better. If I’m feeling stressed out, I can meditate and reflect on why I’m so upset. Usually it’s something silly and dumb, and I can move past it.”
Scallan, a U.S. Air Force Security Policeman from 2007 to 2011, served as an M2 gunner in Iraq in 2009. When he began developing PTSD symptoms after returning to the States, he found the pharmaceuticals supplied by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to be an inadequate solution.
“[When] you’re having a full-bore panic attack, freaking out, screaming, and you take Klonopin… well, that doesn’t kick in until an hour, hour and a half later, and for the rest of the day, [you’re incapacitated],” he says. “I was on several pills, so it’s really good to be off those and to actually be able to enjoy my days again.”
Like Scallan, Jason Sweatt was able to quit meds with the aid of cannabis.
“When I take [pharmaceuticals], I can’t function,” he says. “I’m sleeping 12 hours, and when I get up, I don’t want to go outside, I don’t want to do anything. It wasn’t conducive to the healing process. It was just trying to drown it all out. That’s where the cannabis comes in. You can still function with it. It helped with my anxiety a lot. The pills were just drowning that out, but the cannabis helped me function with anxiety.”
After enlisting in the Army in 1996, Sweatt served as a Blackhawk crew chief in the Bahamas from 1999 to 2001 and a squad leader with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad from 2004 to 2005. Finding that he no longer wanted to be a part of the Iraq mission, he requested a release and was honorably discharged in 2006. When he discovered that he was having some problems readjusting to civilian life — “not really understanding the mission that we did, not really understanding why the American public were just sitting on their hands” — he began seeing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The experience proved less than satisfactory.
“The VA is just a pill mill,” Sweatt says bluntly.” They have a diagnostic for every type of [disorder].”
Scallan chimes in, “If you’re the angry guy, they’ll give you this set of pills, if you’re the sad, depressed, quiet one, they’ll give you this [other] set of pills. I would talk to these guys and get to know their story, and I would see the trend. The angry ones were all on the same pills. It makes you feel like they don’t even listen to your personal story.”
“Here’s your pills. Call me in 90 days,” Newsom intones flatly.
As an alternative to one-size-fits-all pharmaceutical remedies, SCVA is learning about the ways in which different strains of cannabis can help with different ailments. “There’s a whole science to it, more so than there was five or ten years ago,” Sweatt says.
With this in mind, SCVA cultivates various cannabis strains that have been reported to ease pain, anxiety, insomnia, stress, and PTSD symptoms. According to the organization’s staff, the process of growing this medicine can be curative in itself.
“I think that’s what really took me over the edge and allowed me to get my life back together — having my own garden, watching the slow growth of the plant, being calm, having to grow patience and knowing that you’re creating life instead of death,” says Newsom, who received a degree in horticulture from Santa Cruz County’s Cabrillo College in 2013. “It’s a big step back into reality. Instead of destroying and killing, we’re actually creating and curing.”
Ben Kroskey, a Marine Corps vet who joined SCVA’s cultivation team in 2015, contrasts the quietude of gardening with the aggressive mindset he was encouraged to cultivate while in boot camp. “We always did push-ups [while chanting,] ‘Death! Destruction!’ Negativity all the way.”
“Or we’d sit there and we’d do punches, ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’” Newsom adds, punching the air for emphasis.
Sweatt, who first took up cannabis cultivation in Waikiki, Hawaii after returning from Iraq, concurs: “You see so much death and destruction in wartime, and [growing] was the peaceful calmness — it was a man-cave hobby thing, like ‘I can go here and focus,’ but it was also ‘I’m planting something that I’m going to benefit from down the road.’ It’s the same process that’s applied to other agricultural organizations that help farmers and veterans connect. There’s a big push to connect veterans to farming, because it’s a healing process.”
Relaxing as the gardening process might be, the life of an SCVA staff member is not stress-free.
“There are still challenges on the federal level, challenges with the IRS,” Sweatt notes, adding that some of these challenges are fiscal. “Hopefully, it’ll be like alcohol prohibition, 25 states and then finally they’ll change their mind about the situation. Until California voters vote this in as recreational in November, hopefully, this is still considered medicine under Prop. 215 SB 420. But now the counties and municipalities know they can take a portion of proceeds. They’re taxing medicine right now. The state wants to get involved by 2018, and they’re going to add another tax to it. [When it comes to taxes,] we’d like to see [cannabis] treated like any other medicine.”
The DEA’s recent approval of a MAPS-sponsored study of cannabis as a potential cure for chronic PTSD in war veterans is a step in the direction in which the SCVA hopes the U.S. will move. “I would like to see the government open up to more research,” Sweatt says, noting that veterans in Canada can go to the VA and receive prescriptions of 10 grams of cannabis per day. “They don’t give you the cannabis — you have to procure it from a legal source, but they give you a voucher to take to the producer, and the producer is refunded by the Canadian government.”
Newsom feels that it would be in the VA’s best interest to adopt a similar policy. “The cost savings beneficial for the VA to prescribe cannabis over pharmaceuticals is probably ridiculously in their benefit,” he ventures. “It would probably cost them a lot less to give out cannabis than OxyContin, SSRIs or any other painkillers. Cannabis can help with so many different ailments, just on a cost savings basis — and unfortunately, that’s how you’ve got to sell things in politics. It’s not really about how much compassion you’re going to provide, it’s about how much money can be made.”
Newsom feels that SCVA is working toward a cause that is ultimately even larger than the right to use marijuana as medicine.
“We really think that as veterans, and as members of the VA health care system, we can help reschedule or deschedule cannabis,” he states. “We’ve been really trying to speak for the veterans for cannabis movement and for this as an alternative medicine, and even just the right to choose our own health care, period.”