On the first Monday of each month, over a hundred veterans line up to receive their free cannabis voucher from the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance. As cannabis continues to be illegal on a federal level, Veterans Affairs won't cover medical marijuana, even in states like California where it's legal. So while veterans in these sates have access to medicinal cannabis, they can't always afford it.
"Cannabis is quite expensive, so we knew we could help them out: giving them what we grew," Aaron Newsom, founder of the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance told NWA. His group runs 11 successful dispensaries (with a 12th in the works). Ten percent of all the marijuana they grow is given away to veterans who can't afford to buy it outright.
Without access to medical marijuana, many veterans rely on doctor-prescribed opioids to treat conditions like chronic pain and the symptoms of PTSD. Newsom says his own experiences with opioids led him to advocate for greater access to medical marijuana.
"On those drugs [opioids], it wasn't the quality of life that I wanted," Newsom said. "With medical cannabis, I had such great success. I could regulate myself and my hypervigilance, and I was able to get off those other pills."
Now he and the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance are helping other vets follow suit by offering these monthly cannabis giveaways, which have become a community event of sorts for many struggling vets.
"I met a woman there who said her husband never leaves the house except for this one meeting, and they drive in from hours away," Jai Kadilak, who was a tank operator during the Gulf War said. He added that he too has found reconnection to other through these meetings and the use of cannabis has significantly improved his quality of life.
Previously Kadilak had been taking prescribed pills and self-medicating with alcohol when they didn't work. "It really was rolling the dice with alcohol and pills, and it was a negative result," he said. "I didn't feel good. I didn't feel bad. It was like I was just existing."
Stories like that fuel the push to make Veterans Affairs recognize marijuana as medicine and allow VA doctors to recommend it.
"We hope to keep [the marijuana efforts] all sustainable at least until the VA can prescribe it," veteran Seth Smith said. "Everyone comes to find relief from everything from anxiety and depression, the PTSD, the lack of sleep and chronic pain, to get over opioid addiction. We've seen it all."
And so has Veterans Affairs, so it's time for them to stop turning a blind eye to vets in need.