After decades of wars and domestic service, U.S. Veterans stand strong as our nation’s pillars of hope, resilience and patriotism. Over 19 million veterans currently live in the U.S. and are leaders in 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 all of our veterans and their families.
When our most recent generation of Post 9/11 veterans returned home, they were met with a positive reception. Welcome Home parades, veterans hiring fairs, and increased VA and veteran community resources were existent across the nation. But underneath it all, service members who were lucky enough to return home came back with significant wounds , both visible and invisible. Physical injuries were rampant, due to unprecedented and unique war tactics such as suicide bombers and IED’s . Thousands lost limbs and many suffered from traumatic brain injuries not just through combat, but during training exercises.
The psychological wounds of war were also felt tremendously. As shown in volumes of academic studies, many returned home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, and anti-social tendencies, leading to other barriers to a return to normalcy such as homelessness and unemployment.
Though up to one-third of veterans returned with such wounds, the vast majority have shown tremendous resilience in their transition home and have remained powerful assets to their community and local economies.
But for those who need that extra support and more intensive services, our nation, unfortunately, 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 various 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 of other wars and eras.
To tackle the physical and psychological needs of the veterans, the VA, like other health care systems, has primarily relied on dangerous drugs, such as prescription opioids. 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 and 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 too 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. 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 WFWP Was Founded
Weed for Warriors Project (WFWP) 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 “friendlys” 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 combination of white collar hypocrisy 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 of WFWP, 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 like 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 WFWP 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 at first glance seem playful and even ironic; after all, it’s stated mission is providing weed to soldiers. Make no mistake though, 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 afflicts them, and are working to close more of the gaps 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 in the battlefield, it’s still a matter of life or death.
One 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. 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 together.
While hanging out and catching the magic, the Nugl team had the chance to meet several WFWP members. Without much hesitation, many related 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 curb 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, and claims of cannabis normalizing and calming emotions were made throughout our conversations. In one instance, we had a profound conversation with a wife and veteran, Kim Yarbrough, where she stated profoundly that “Cannabis helped bring my husband back. ‘Til 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 toll on his mind and body. After his transition home, his world was turned upside down and he hit rock bottom when he attempted suicide. Once he turned to cannabis though, things changed, and finally 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. Now he is WFWP success story, enjoying the fellowship of his co-members, and of course his wife Kim, who remains happy to have her husband back.
Amanda Carillo, Mark’s wife and caregiver, 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.” Mrs. Carrillo’s grandfathers, father, and brother are also veterans and members of WFWP.
Therein lies the special magic of WFWP. They are creating a space and sharing acceptance for a plant that had saved them. And for them, the sense of unity, of team, of family once felt in the military, is being found again 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.
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 percent, and 80 percent of cities still do not allow for dispensary retail sales. While such issues are common pain points in the industry, WFWP isn’t concerned about the financial bottom line. To them, the 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 need, and are demanding better options.
For WFWP the passage of Prop 64 also meant they couldn’t legally directly 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 renowned cannabis researcher Dr. Sue Sisley suggests that cannabis may be able to offset symptoms of PTSD.
WFWP has also been on the front-lines of advocating for more research on the efficacy of medical cannabis. Sean knows this battle well and is working alongside researchers including Dr. Sisley to advance this important research, which is key to eventually obtaining FDA approval for medical cannabis, a possible final piece (besides de-scheduling) 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, and of most concern to WFWP, Proposition 64 exacerbated issues for veterans. In a letter addressed to Governor Gavin Newsom, Sean wrote that Proposition 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 Peron and Brownie Mary Act. Passed and signed by Governor Newsom on October 12th, this bill will allow for licensed producers to partner with organizations such as Weed for Warriors to offer free medical cannabis to patients. The significance of this measure to the cause can not be understated and WFWP was unwavering in seeing it through. Sean traveled to Sacramento frequently to speak and advocate for the passage of the bill and thanks to his effort and the support of other advocates, SB 34 had strong bi-partisan support heading to Governor Newsom’s desk to ultimately be signed. This feat was a huge victory for the lobbying and organizing power of WFWP, and for veterans across the state.
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 more 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, some capital investment, and is building strong relationships with reputable brands across the supply chain. Cannabis will not be the only market the brand will touch on: apparel, media – including documentaries and TV series, healthcare, housing and more.
Ultimately, there is no stopping WFWP from the mission they’ve embarked on. Their commitment to each other is as evident and unwavering as their commitment to their country. They know that the mission is beyond cannabis, and must truly lead to healing. Their physical and psychological scars may yet be present, but more and more of the pain of their experience is now viewed in their rear view mirror as they plant their seeds in the cannabis industry, and look to the future.
The Road Ahead
As the future of federal legalization remains uncertain, it is evident that the veteran community is key to the eventual passage. It is impossible to deny the damage and pain inflicted on a generation of veterans harmed by over-prescription of 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, That’s a good sign, but it’s nowhere near enough, and we can no longer wait and continue to hold back our veterans from access to a plant that can bring them so much healing.
States with cannabis decriminalization and legalization have seen an overall decrease in suicides, overdoses, car crash deaths, and DUI’s, and evidence suggests that healing is happening in those areas at exponential numbers for Veterans. We’re closer now than we’ve ever been to meaningful state and federal legislation, and everything tells us that WFWP will be there at the forefront, leading the way as healing and resilient veterans.