Underneath a billboard advertising premium cannabis is one of Portland's only operating cannabis lounges, and on any given day at the Northwest Cannabis Club the bar is full of U.S. military veterans.
Thomas Cashman is a veteran and vice president of the Oregon chapter of Grow For Vets, a non-profit organization headquartered in Colorado. He says he feels more comfortable there than at Veterans of Foreign Wars (VTF) clubs.
"Self-isolation is a huge symptom of PTSD and for me it was the most challenging one to break," says Cashman. "Not every veteran wants to go to the VFW and drink whiskey and tell war stories. I don't like to tell war stories and I don't even like hearing them anymore. We have had a decade of that, I have heard them and I am done. I want to talk about how we can help more veterans and how we can get more veterans involved in helping more veterans."
Grow for Vets supplies veterans with cannabis
Grow For Vets provides any U.S. military veteran over the age of 21 with a regular supply of free cannabis, regardless of formal medical marijuana program status. Their mission is to "save more than 50 veterans who die each day from suicide and prescription drug overdose" by providing veterans with a "safe alternative to deadly prescription drugs...and resources necessary to obtain or grow their own cannabis for treatment of their medical conditions."
There are currently 21 million living U.S. veterans of all wars. Nearly 50,000 of them are homeless. Median incomes are low, around $30,000 and between 15 and 30 percent have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with higher rates among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
Many veterans are undiagnosed. Those who are diagnosed usually are prescribed combinations of psychotropic prescription drugs, and many self-medicate with illegal drugs. Many have turned to alcohol abuse. Every day, about 22 (or more) veterans will take their own lives. A growing movement of veterans are using cannabis to treat both the physical and mental wounds of war.
"This is basically our unofficial clubhouse, it's our basecamp," Cashman says of the NW Cannabis Club.
Cashman says the club, which is private and "BYOC" (bring your own cannabis), allows Grow For Vets to host events and the club also hosts events in their honor. Veterans receive discounted membership and collection jars for the organization are displayed prominently at the register.
"This has become a gathering place for veterans who don't drink," Cashman says.
Retired soldier uses cannabis to treat PTSD
One of those veterans is K. Patton, a retired army soldier working in Oregon's new legal cannabis industry. Patton is a conservative and a registered Republican, who believes safe access to cannabis is a bipartisan issue. He is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, diagnosed with PTSD and using cannabis in place of pharmaceutical drugs to help combat the symptoms.
After returning from a tour of duty in Iraq and a tour in Afghanistan, Patton has had difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He didn't have much of a support system and was having trouble sleeping, keeping a job and maintaining relationships.
"If I heard a loud noise, I wouldn't hit the floor but I would tense up, ready for a strike. My life was in the shitter and somebody told me I needed to get help," says Patton.
He decided to seek professional help but instead he waited for months to be seen at his local VA hospital in Atlanta, which was ill prepared for the flood of new veterans created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and caught up in bureaucratic scandal over secret waitlists.
He says he went nearly homeless for months to save up the money to relocate to Portland, where he was able to see a VA doctor without a long wait. He says although he had a great doctor, the drugs he was prescribed didn't work.
"The only tools the government lets [my doctor] have are pharmaceuticals," Patton says.
He was prescribed Citalopram, an SSRI anti-depressant drug.
"I tried to take it for awhile. I felt like something added was in my brain, it wasn't stopping anything, it was just there. It was unsettling," he says.
He was anti-drug before using cannabis
Prior to trying cannabis he says he was very anti-drug. He grew up watching drugs and the war against them destroy his community and his own family. He says his military service combined with extensive world travels have changed his perception of the War on Drugs and cannabis specifically.
"I got to see [the international drug war] from several different perspectives. I have been smart enough to study it. I could have been a statistic - any wrong move and I could have fallen into the system. Anything from having a kid or having no money to going into selling drugs, taking the easy way out," says Patton.
Patton was born and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the late 80s and early 90s. He never knew his father and because his mother had a substance abuse problem he became the primary caretaker for his younger siblings. He refers to the era when he grew up in the New York City suburb as the "crack wars."
As a kid, he read science fiction to escape and knew he wanted to travel when he grew up, which inspired him to enlist.
"There were always people on the corner using kids to sell drugs. The drug dealers would use everybody and anybody around them to sell drugs, including their own family," he says. "One day, the police - the good guys - ran up on all the kids and other minors coming out of school and had us against the wall, patting us down - all that stuff. I didn't have anything to do with it and I am getting pat down like I am the guy on the corner. I didn't hate them for it but it pissed me off, I knew it wasn't right. I didn't know at the time they were taking my civil liberties away."
Patton says the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan don't compare to the war he grew up in; the foreign wars were more dangerous but the one at home is more frustrating.
"It's war-like, but it's war against America, it's a war against ourselves. We kill each other, we throw each other in jail, waste money - it's a war on ourselves."
He says witnessing the corruption on the streets and the governmental corruption led by Democratic state administrations in New Jersey led him to register Republican. Shortly after graduating high school, Patton enlisted in the U.S. army in August 2001. He was planning to be a career officer.
"I knew I wasn't going to have enough money for school… I wanted to be a solider because it's an honorable profession. I just knew it was what I wanted to do and was grateful to be doing it."
Patton fought in two wars
A month later the September 11 attacks happened. He says he knew he would fight in a war, but didn't imagine he would fight in two. After being stationed in Korea, he was deployed to Iraq in 2005.
In Iraq, Patton was part of an artillery unit, Convoy Logistics Patrol, that delivered ammunition to bases around the country, in addition to being on active duty guarding bases in Baghdad.
"If you didn't get mortared the night before, then you would wake up in the morning," he says. "We would get our mission, check vehicles and do maintenance."
The deliveries were usually carried out overnight, when it was slightly safer to travel.
"It still wasn't safe - far from it," he says.
After 13 months in Iraq, Patton left the military, moved to Georgia and joined the Georgia National Guard. He says one of the motivations for leaving active duty was because he had become more politically aware and no longer agreed with the wars. Before going to war he says he primarily watched Fox News and had general faith in the government.
"My whole belief system was questioned."
Shortly after the presidential election in 2008, he was called back to active duty in Afghanistan. When he found out he was going back he says he was frustrated at first - he was just coming out of his shell, making friends and had stopped carrying a gun with him everywhere. He says, however, he was ultimately honored to serve again.
Afghanistan was far more dangerous for him than Iraq. "Afghanistan was a whole different type of war we were fighting. Here we were a handful of men for hundreds of hundred of miles, fighting an unseen enemy. It was kinda like Vietnam - they knew where we were at all times and we just wait to get attacked."
Afghanistan changed his views on drugs
He says his views on drugs really shifted during his time in Afghanistan. In much of the country both cannabis and poppies used to cultivate opium are grown in the open. He says the U.S. military tried to encourage the farmers to grow other agricultural crops, but no longer tries to eradicate the fields.
"It's a part of life, we could destroy all the poppy we want, but they [the Afghani farmers] have nothing, if we destroyed their crops they would go after us. It wasn't worth it to U.S. commanders on the ground."
Patton says his exposure to cannabis culture, and international drug culture generally, has really altered his perception of it. He wishes it was taken more seriously by the government so it can be studied and properly administered by medical professionals.
"I just saw the toll of the drug war first hand. I saw addiction in my family, the amount of money we [the United States] have spent fighting it, seeing minorities and the poor people in America that are targeted by the War on Drugs. We need to have smart decriminalization and rehabilitation - we need to say we are going to stop it now, today."
Since leaving active duty and relocating to Portland, Patton met and became active with Grow For Vets and frequents the NW Cannabis Club informally with many of the other local members.
Cannabis lounge gives them a sense of community
Thomas Cashman says so many vets have been drawn to Portland's cannabis lounge because fighting in wars bonded them to their fellow soldiers. They crave the sense of community, unity and family cultivated by service to their country and each other but are often isolated in civilian society, which further exacerbates PTSD.
Cashman says the Oregon chapter now has about 150 members they serve with free cannabis provided through donations from local growers and cannabis companies. Many of the growers are often veterans themselves.
"There are a good number of veterans that are growers," he says. "There is crossover in those communities. It's people who are used to standing on the edge and looking over. They understand that freedom is inherently unsafe and they accept and assume that risk."
Cashman joined the military in 1989 and fought in both the first Gulf War in the 90s and the Iraq war in the 2000s. He was discharged in 2013 after a traumatic brain injury he suffered from a motorcycle accident while he was off-duty. He drank heavily to cope with his symptoms of PTSD.
After his discharge a friend whose parents were growers started providing him with free cannabis. He said having the regular supply changed his life. He stopped drinking, enrolled in school and started working through his PTSD.
"The biggest thing cannabis does for me is helps me sleep, sleep is so key to health," says Thomas Cashman.
They also host educational events to bring more veterans into the fold, he says.
"My hope is the more veterans who successfully use cannabis, the more veterans will successfully use cannabis to treat their symptoms and as an alternative recreation to alcohol as well."
Photos by Thomas Cashman