BY MARIE LODI
Through scientific research, anecdotal evidence, and tracing back through ancient history, we’ve learned that cannabis has the potential to help people with many different things like pain, anxiety, insomnia, and so much more. While the plant has a continually diversifying consumer base — from millennials to baby boomers — another important group that has benefitted from cannabis is veterans. There are 18.2 million military veterans in the United States, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, and many of these vets returned home with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and depression. Thankfully, there are organizations like Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, which helps vets by training them to grow the plant, and giving them cannabis for free.
SCVA was founded in 2011 by two military veterans, Aaron Newsom and Jason Sweatt, who wanted to help fellow vets deal with the mental and physical aftermath of active duty. Newsom and Sweatt found cannabis to be a healthier and safer alternative to the copious amounts of opioids that were prescribed to them by doctors, so they began growing their own high-quality cannabis and giving it away for free to vets who had a medical marijuana license. Now, they have approximately 1,500 veterans in their system, with around 200 vets in the Bay area receiving completely gratis cannabis on a monthly basis — a signature indica strain called Kosher Kush.
Austin Fagen, a 26-year-old Marine Corps veteran who works as a sales rep for SCVA, was “definitely not the same” when he returned from doing two tours in Afghanistan. “It can alter your mindstate and what you think of the world, and I just came back messed up,” Fagen says. “Coming back from war, you're going from total chaos, to a completely different world in which no one can relate to [war experiences]. And that's very tough in itself, because you feel like you can't talk to anyone, and certain experiences such as flashbacks can bring you right back into the situation that you think you're in.” Fagen says that the military has transitional programs, but it doesn't compare to how cannabis has helped him get “back to normal."
Fagen has seen firsthand how cannabis has improved the lives of many of his fellow vets who have PTSD and anxiety like him, as well as a slew of other conditions, including debilitating pain, traumatic brain injuries, arthritis, knee pain, and nerve pain. And the physical and mental maladies that vets often deal with can result from all types of experiences while on active duty. “Here's the thing: you don't necessarily have to go to combat to see some crazy stuff, or to be affected in such a way that you can use this medicine to benefit you,” he says.
The Veteran Affairs does not prescribe cannabis, nor does it recognize it as an alternative medicine, Fagen points out. In fact, the VA’s website states that because cannabis is still federally classified as a Schedule One Controlled Substance, and the VA is required to follow all federal laws, it cannot help vets to obtain it or even recommend it. “So that's a big problem, because you have a lot of disabled veterans that cannot get access to this medicine, and they are either tired of opioids or opioids have just torn them up so bad that they literally just can't [use them] anymore,” Fagen says. “It's detrimental to them, and they want to use something that's way better for them, better for their body and their lives, so they turn to cannabis."
Until cannabis is federally legal, vets can turn to SCVA for free cannabis through its Veteran Compassion Program. But SCVA does more beyond donating — they also teach veterans how to grow and cultivate cannabis. Horticultural therapy is a practice that has been around since WWII, which helps provide stress relief, exercise, and the learning of new skills. Along with Kosher Kush, SCVA also cultivates two other strains: Combat Cookies, which is their in-house GSC phenotype that’s great for pain and anxiety, and a heavy sativa called Super Sour Diesel. The grow goes to the veterans first and then everything else is sold through the SCVA storefront, or externally through dispensaries like MedMen.
Fagen poignantly describes SCVA’s cultivation process as a sort of circle of healing for the vets and the people who purchase their flower. “It’s not only helping our veterans in house that are growing the beautiful flowers, but the flowers they produce are helping other people as well,” Fagen says.
MedMen is proud to regularly offer military veterans a discount of 15% off their purchase with a valid military ID, veteran ID or state driver’s license showing veteran designation. And if you stop by on Veterans Day (Monday, 11/11), MedMen will double the Veteran’s Discount from 15% to 30%.