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The Secret War Against Cannabis Prohibition

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By Joseph Chicas & Amanda Carrillo

After decades of wars and domestic service, our U.S. Veterans stand strong as our nation’s pillars of hope, resiliency and patriotism. Over 19 million veterans currently live in the U.S. and are leaders various facets of political, social and economic life.

Nevertheless, physical and psychological injuries of service have been well documented and have led to significant national efforts to heal our all of our veterans and their families.

Our most recent generation of Post 9/11 veterans returned home, they were met with positive reception. Welcome home parades, veterans hiring fairs, and increased VA/community resources were existent across the nation. But underneath it all, service members who were lucky enough to return home came home with significant wounds –both visible and invisible. Physical injuries were rampant, due to unique war tactics such as suicide bombers and IED’s at unprecedented scale. Thousands lost limbs and many suffered from traumatic brain injuries not just through combat, but during training exercises.

Though up to one-third of veterans returned with such wounds, the vast majority have shown tremendous resiliency in their transition home and have made powerful assets to their community and local economies.

But for those who needed that extra support and more intensive services, unfortunately, our nation has failed on delivering its promises to our heroes. Despite strong efforts, the primary system set up to assist with veteran transition, the Veterans Affairs administration, has been ill equipped to serve our post-9/11 veteran community. The embattled agency has struggled meeting the unique needs, resulting in well-documented challenges plaguing the system: exorbitantly long wait-times, inability to prevent high suicide rates and inadequate mental health treatments. Gaps exposed have also adversely affected veterans other eras.

To tackle the physical and psychological needs of the veterans, the VA, like other health care systems, has primarily relied on harsh drugs such as opioid prescriptions. In a 2012 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, it was found that veterans with PTSD were two times more likely to receive an opioid prescription, and also at higher more frequent doses. Taken at scale this contributed to a generation of veterans hooked on pills. Eventually the VA changes its practices to significantly reduce its reliance on opioids. But for many veterans it was too late.

As this surge happened, recognition that these methods were doing more harm than good led to many veterans turning to other alternatives such as cannabis for natural healing. Many, were tempted to use sites like Med Signals to buy products to help them remove the trace of weed from themselves after using it to ensure they wouldn’t get into trouble with the authorities. This is how little support these heroes received from the very people they were fighting to protect. The Weed for Warriors story embodies this shift in our veterans’ consciousness as they coped with the harsh realities of transitioning from the military back to civilian life.

Why and How Was WFWP Founded?

Weed for Warriors was founded in 2014 by Kevin Richardson who turned to cannabis after attempting to commit suicide and leaning on the plant to alleviate the pain felt by him and millions of others. In a span of 30 days, Kevin was off opioids and alcohol. Cannabis offered a healthy alternative for him and he couldn’t wait to share the healing effects of the plant with others. But he knew fellowship was key. After-all, military service was about camaraderie and fellowship-something most veterans find missing when they return home. So he opened the first chapter of WFWP in San Jose and there the story began. With 8 chapters in California, 3 in Florida and “friendlies” near and as far as the UK and Australia, WFWP is leading the charge in providing veterans access to medical cannabis.

The mission was propelled when Kevin met Sean Kiernan at a Denver cannabis event in 2015. Kevin and Sean immediately clicked and aligned themselves on this vital mission. Sean, the current CEO, served in the U.S. Army and is a UC Berkeley graduate. He also worked as a Hedge Fund Manager on Wall Street before the white collar hypocrisy pushed him too far and his own service related injuries began to wear him down. Sean began working with the organization to fight for the rights of veterans and give a voice to the voiceless. He feels that although WFWP began primarily as a cannabis organization, it is also their duty as a group to bring awareness to the judicial and poverty issues surrounding veterans and the Veterans Administration.

Mark Carrillo, COO and Director of Chapters, began giving away cannabis from a personal garden in January 2015 under the name Meds4Vets. After joining the United States Marine Corps at age 17, Mark completed his enlistment in 2007 and found cannabis again after experiencing serious side-effects from alcoholism. When he realized how expensive and often unreliable the availability of medicine was, he eventually began to grow his own in order to ensure he was never without it. What started as helping himself and a few brothers, eventually encouraged him to help more in his community. He held his first gathering at a local dispensary and within 90 days of having meetings in Sacramento, CA, the group had outgrown the location; and as Kevin had seen, he realized the camaraderie was what brought veterans back over and over. After meeting Founder Kevin Richardson in 2015, the two began working together and Mark officially changed his Meds4Vets group to WFWProject Sacramento. Together, Kevin and Mark organized other veterans to develop all of the California chapters and then the additional Florida and Wisconsin chapters.

The Weed for Warriors moniker might seem playful and even ironic; after-all its providing weed for warriors! But make no mistake, this group means business. WFWP is operating at multiple levels to ensure that veterans get access to cannabis to alleviate the physical and psychological pain that affects them. They have closed a gap that an agency like that VA simply cant fill. Through their support networks, advocacy and entrepreneurial initiatives they lead by example. And they are well respected for their authentic approach to service –there is no question their mission on the home-front is as serious as their military battles. In fact, as it was in the battlefield, it’s still a matter of life or death.

As a Support Network

One on Sunday afternoon, we had the opportunity to drive up to the Stockton WFWP monthly meet-up alongside NUGL President, Ali Ganji. Veterans of all eras and of all ages were united together as they enjoyed some delicious prime rib fresh off the grill and their cannabis of choice. There was no judgment, just love. Veterans had traveled for hours to come down and join other vets to share war stories, vent about life circumstances and get lifted.

While hanging out and catching the magic, the NUGL team had the chance to meet several WFWP members. Without much hesitation, many went on to say how tough life had been post transition. Nobody understood what they had gone through and their relationships were just not the same. Several had lost a fellow patriot. All battled with substance abuse as the VA over -prescribed them pills (mainly for chronic pain) and struggled to curve their drinking. Most surprisingly, many said they seriously considered killing themselves because of the rampant PTSD, TBI, depression, substance abuse or other issues they experienced upon their transition home.

And yet throughout their battles, you couldn’t even tell. Cannabis, according to everyone we spoke to, was their life saver. Claims of cannabis normalizing their emotions and calming them down were made throughout conversations. In one instance, we had a profound conversation with a wife and veteran, Kim Yarbrough, where she even stated that “cannabis helped bring her husband back.” Till that point, he was not the same.

Kim’s husband Neil Yarbrough had been prescribed up to 28 pills at one point. His military service took an immense tool on his mind and body. After this transition home, his world was turned upside down. And he hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. But cannabis saved him and once he turned to cannabis, things changed. He changed and for the better. He has a tattoo of the numbers “22” to remind him that he has 22 brothers and sisters that commit suicide everyday and he could have been one of them. But his strength and the love and support around him allow him to be here today. And now he is a success story and gets to enjoy fellowship with his WFWP members and of course his wife is happy to have her husband back.

Amanda Carillo, Mark’s wife and caregiver, also echoed similar sentiments when it came to her husband’s transition: “Cannabis is just a tool in the toolbox during the journey through wellness; you could have vitamins, exercises, hobbies… all as tools too. It’s a journey because influences around you shift, both slightly and drastically, and so you must adjust as well. There’s a misconception that cannabis patients are lazy or avoiding their issues, when in fact they’re using this tool to face them head on and get back to living.” says Mrs. Carrillo, who’s grandfathers, father, and brother are also veterans and members of WFWP.

Therein lies the special magic with WFWP. They are creating a space and sharing acceptance for a plant that had saved them. And for them, that sense of unity, of team, of family once felt in the military, they found at home. It’s on this front that Mark get’s most excited. For him its about providing veterans and their families “something to look forward to every month.

That space is sacred too – Mark ensures chapters and chapter leaders are prepared for the challenges they will face as they cultivate this space in other cities and stay true to the WFWP Mission.

As a Policy Advocate Powerhouse

At the macro level, WFWP is a force to be reckoned with. WFWP were strong advocates of the California Prop 215 system that allows them and others to provide free cannabis to patients who may be in need, but don’t have the economic means to purchase their medicine. For WFWP, providing access to cannabis for veterans is a social, economic and health equity issue.

When California voters passed Prop 64, WFWP came out in strong opposition against the initiative because they anticipated barriers to access medicine would increase exponentially. They were right. The costs of cannabis products has increased over 35% and 80 % of cities still do not allow for dispensary retail sales. While such issues are common pain points in the industry, WFWP wasn’t concerned about the financial bottom line. To them, their bottom line is that that veterans can no longer access affordable or free medicine to help with their ailments. It’s a health justice matter; as opiate and barbiturates statistics climb, veterans are demanding better options.

And for WFWP the passage of Prop 64 also meant they couldn’t legally provide free cannabis to their members who may need it. And though providing free cannabis might sound like a light mission for some; the gravity of this gift cannot be understated. The medicinal benefits of cannabis are well documented in international research and even in Dr. Sue Sisley, a renown researcher, suggests that cannabis may be able to offset symptoms of PTSD.

WFWP has also been on the front-lines in advocating for more research on the efficacy of medical cannabis. Sean knows this battle well and is working alongside researchers like Dr. Sisley to advance medical cannabis research. Research is key to eventually obtaining FDA approval for medical cannabis, which may be the final piece (besides descheduling) that will allow for veterans to get reimbursed by the VA for medical cannabis prescriptions. Doing so would bring significant health and financial relief to the millions of veterans that reportedly use medical cannabis to treat their service related injuries.

Furthermore, for WFWP Prop 64 exacerbated issues for veterans. In a letter addressed to Governor Gavin Newsom, Sean wrote: Prop 64… “created two California’s for Cannabis. One for those with resources who will be able to afford the tremendous cost increases associated with consumption or production that AUMA will entail; and the other, the black market where the sick, poor and disenfranchised will be forced to turn to.”

Nevertheless, WFWP has fought hard to advocate for the passage of California Senate Bill 34, also known as the Dennis Perone and Brownie Mary Act. Once passed, this bill would allow for licensed retailers to partner with organizations such as Weed for Warriors to offer free medical cannabis to patients. The significance of this measure could not be understated and WFWP is unwavering in seeing this happen. Sean travels to Sacramento frequently to speak and advocate for the passage of this bill and thanks to his effort and the support of other advocates SB 34 has strong bi-partisan support and looks on track to heading to Governor Newsom’s desk to be signed. This feat would be a huge victory for WFWP and for veterans across the state.

As an Engine Fueling Veteran Entrepreneurship

Besides support and advocacy, WFWP is looking expand their for profit arm to develop a vertically integrated cannabis operation. Doing so will allow them to build out the WFWP cannabis brand and provide economic opportunities for other veterans and ensure products are made “For Vets by Vets.” This ambitious mission is coming to fruition quickly. The organization has secured multiple cannabis licenses, has secured some capital investments and is building strong relationships with reputable brands across the supply chain. Cannabis will not be the only market the brand will touch: apparel, media – both documentaries and series, health, housing… the list goes on.

Ultimately, there is no stopping WFWP from embarking on their mission. Their commitment to each other is evident as their commitment to their country. Their mission is beyond cannabis and really leads to healing. Their physical and psychological scars may be present, but it’s clear that’s in their rear view mirror as they look to the future and plant their seeds in the cannabis industry.

The Road Ahead

As the future of federal legalization remains uncertain, its evident that the veteran community carries the key to the eventual passage. There is no denying the damage of pain we’ve inflicted on a generation of veterans who were harmed by overprescription of harsh pain pills who are now healing through cannabis. Bipartisan support in Congress and the Executive Branch shows support for more research on the medical benefits of cannabis — and that’s a good sign. But it’s nowhere near enough and we can no longer wait as we don’t want to hold back our veterans from access to a plant who can bring them much healing.

States with cannabis legislation have seen a decrease in suicides, overdoses, and DUIs. Evidence suggests that healing is happening in those areas at exponential numbers. It’s only a matter of time before we follow suit too. We’re closer now than we’ve ever been. And something tells us WFWP will be there at the forefront, leading the way and creating the next generation of healed and resilient veterans.

Joseph Chicas is a social policy expert that guides leading cannabis companies through licensing, compliance and growth strategies. He is the lead policy contributor for Nugl and is a published author. He serves as the Founder and CEO of Cannabiz Venture Partners and is a former policy professor from the University of Southern California. He also led the creation of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of Veterans Affairs, which had not been in existence in LA since World War 2 . His articles focus on emerging cannabis policy issues from social equity, global licensing trends to investment strategies. Joseph obtained his BA from UCLA and his Master’s Degree from USC.

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