Mashable: The Stoned Soldiers of Santa Cruz

Summary: Mashable interviews combat veterans and founders of the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance about why they produce and provide medical marijuana for veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). MAPS-sponsored medical marijuana researcher Dr. Sue Sisley is interviewed about the importance of conducting research into the medical potential of marijuana, stating, "I don’t view anything as medicine until it’s been put through the control-trial process. Until we do that, I’m never going to be able to fully embrace this idea. But I do believe the veterans. I do believe their firsthand reports. I believe them and I believe the family reports that say, ‘I’ve gotten my husband back’ or ‘I’ve gotten my father back.’ So I think we owe it to them to see this research through."

Originally appearing here.

SANTA CRUZ, California — Laid out on the hospital bed across from him at Joint Base Balad, the man with the destroyed face could easily have been Jake Scallan himself. They did the same job, two years after the Iraq War’s troop surge and two years before its official end. Both manned .50-caliber M2 turret guns on security patrols that drove around the base’s perimeter. But Scallan, who had been fighting pneumonia already, fell ill that 2009 night.

He vomited on patrol in his gunner’s turret. His nose began to bleed. He eventually became useless for the night’s mission. Scallan’s squad took him back to the base’s emergency room. Doctors pumped fluids into him and his condition stabilized, then a commotion arose in the ward.

“We’ve got an emergency coming in,” a doctor told Scallan. “No one’s going to be able to pay much attention to you for a little bit.”

The other turret gunner was wheeled in and loaded onto a bed. On patrol with his own squad, he’d been shot by an “explosively formed penetrator” — a particularly lethal type of improvised device. A copper slug had pummeled straight into his face.

Medical staff did what they could, but the other gunner died within minutes. The first doctor to realize he was dead screamed. He threw his tobacco pipe and stormed out of the room. The dead gunner’s body was cleaned up, at least some. A quick fallen-hero ceremony was performed right there.

Scallan watched it all from his bed feet away. Then it was back to work for everyone.

Scallan calls that “one of the worst” days of his seven-month deployment to Iraq. Like many veterans, he returned home from war with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It eventually led to his medical retirement from the Air Force in 2011.

Scallan’s PTSD manifested itself in panic attacks, anxiety about dealing with people, and anger. He’d yell at people and break things around the house. He struggled to see the point of anything. He drank heavily to cope. That only amplified his anger issues.

“I drove away a lot of my military friends toward the end of my time there,” Scallan says.

Scallan is 28 now, tall and broad-shouldered, with fair skin and dark hair. He moves deliberately, like a person with more patience than places to be. He no longer drinks, and he exudes calm, which is hard to square with the tormented ex-soldier he describes. But a lot has happened between now and then.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) doctors prescribed drugs — lots of drugs — for Scallan’s PTSD after his return from Iraq in 2009. He says he took 600mg of Seroquel, a powerful psychiatric, each night to sleep. He popped 3mg of Klonopin whenever he felt an anxiety attack flaring up. He took 200mg of Zoloft for depression each day, as well as opiates prescribed for pain.

The resulting version of himself, Scallan says, was more “zombie” than human. Effie Cobarrudia, Scallan’s longtime girlfriend, remembers him as “totally empty, just vacant” during that time. Sometimes, he’d neglect to take his pills and his mood would vacillate wildly.

Scallan had never loved marijuana the few times he tried it as a teenager in suburban Fremont, California. But a pot enthusiast friend who was concerned about his condition helped Scallan get a medical marijuana card, which in California can be as easy as walking into the office of a doctor you’ve Googled but never met. Scallan’s friend encouraged him to try pot again.

This time, it was different. 

Scallan found cannabis offered relief from his PTSD without leaving him completely vegetated. He was happier and more engaged. He and Cobarrudia could still go on a hike after he medicated, instead of her having to watch him stare half-sedated out the window. He felt social again. After about of year of smoking pot daily, Scallan was able to stop taking the opiates, Zoloft and Klonopin. He was down to 150mg of Seroquel each night to sleep. Then he ditched that as well.

Scallan had finally found relief, but his journey had just begun. Soon, he’d meet other combat veterans with similar stories. Soon, they’d help spearhead a movement for their peers, some of them struggling, some of them homeless, all of them sharing a military history and an appreciation for medical pot.

Scallan had no way of knowing this at the time, but he was soon to find an entire network of support, purpose and community through marijuana.

Just after 6 p.m. on Presidents Day 2016, a spectacular sunset unfurls above the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post on the east side of Santa Cruz, California. It’s a warm evening for February. In front of the beige VFW building, an American flag hangs languid in the still air. Out back, Jimi Hendrix rips guitar licks from a speaker propped on a white Toyota 4Runner.

Scallan stands not far from the SUV, armed with a pen and clipboard. He wears a black T-shirt that reads “Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance” (SCVA). Along with three colleagues, he matches names to faces in a long line of people gathered out back near a dozen picnic tables. The faces are overwhelmingly male, but diverse in race and age. Men in their twenties mingle with those in their sixties. Older guys sport graying ponytails and flannel shirts. The younger ones favor hoodies and shorts.

They’re all U.S. military veterans and SCVA members. Scallan matches each to the list on his clipboard. Then he hands each fellow former soldier a brown paper bag full of marijuana, free of charge.

Twice a month, the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance (SCVA) meets behind the VFW building. The group’s logo — a cannabis plant growing from a soldier’s helmet — sums it up well: Combat veterans grow pot, give their medical card-holding SCVA members some for free and then sell the rest to general medical cannabis dispensaries in order to keep their operation going.

But these veterans don’t just grow marijuana — they grow extremely goodmarijuana. Alec Dixon is cofounder of SC Laboratories, a science company that analyzes 7,500 unique medical marijuana samples from across California monthly. He says SCVA marijuana is “within the top one percent” of everything he sees, and he sees a lot. 

The group producing all that chronic bud was founded by combat veterans Jason Sweatt and Aaron Newsom after the pair met in Santa Cruz in 2010. (Scallan joined the team in 2013.) Sweat, the SCVA’s director, is a 39-year-old Alabaman who worked as an Army mechanic on convoys that made vulnerable treks across the Iraqi desert in 2004 and 2005. Newsom, the shorter and more outwardly energetic of the two, was a Marine who helped maintain attack helicopters in Afghanistan during the same time period. Now 33, he’s the SCVA’s head of operations.

By the time they met in 2010, Sweatt and
Newsom had each received honorable discharges, been diagnosed with PTSD and struggled with the side effects of pharmaceutical medications. Each had also obtained medical marijuana cards and started small-scale grow operations. When they drove down the coast together for the 2010 EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar (yep, the same retreat where Don Draper had his big epiphany in Mad Men), they bonded over a joint or three.

“Horticulture was a big part of both our recoveries, on top of medical cannabis,” Sweatt says. “We decided then it was something worth building a mission around.” 

Like many missions, this one was conceived to solve a problem. Sweatt and Newsom — along with Scallan and an impossible-to-calculate number of additional veterans — could not seriously talk to their primary VA doctors about using a drug that’s federally illegal. (No matter that pot is medically legal in 23 states and recreationally legal in three — the VA is a federal organization.)

“Most of us have already asked our doctors, and they kind of laugh and say, ‘I didn’t hear that,’” Newsom says.

After Sweatt and Newsom founded the SCVA, word gradually spread among local veterans. By 2014, their group was big enough to use a friendly dispensary’s spare room for meetings. By 2015, meetings had to be moved to the VFW’s backyard because there were so many new members.

Today, the SCVA counts about 200 members. To join, you must must be a military veteran, California resident and have a state medical marijuana recommendation from a doctor. Then California medical cannabis law allows you to accept the SCVA’s free bimonthly pot offerings.

But those involved say it’s about much more than free bud.

“I found community and a purpose again,” Newsom says of cofounding the SCVA after years of struggling to re-acclimate to civilian life. Today, he’s married and the father of two toddlers.

That sentiment was echoed by Sweatt, Scallan and Ben Kroskey, a Marine Corp veteran and the SCVA’s most recent hire. It was further supported by SCVA members at the Presidents Day meeting, who say both growing and consuming cannabis has therapeutic effects for them. But marijuana is still a Schedule I substance, according to the U.S. government. That status puts it alongside heroin and a tier above cocaine, a Schedule II substance. Schedule I substances, according to the DEA, are “considered the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence.” Activists have campaigned for decades for the DEA to downgrade marijuana’s Schedule I status, but so far to no avail.

It all means the stoney military veterans gathered outside the Santa Cruz VFW are legal at the state level, but illegal at the federal level. Amid the military’s rejection of pot’s potential benefits — officially, the plant might as well not exist for former soldiers — a band of combat veterans has built something for themselves after finding insufficient recourse elsewhere.

“You’ve got these trained warriors, who have historically extinguished life, now being restored through nurturing life,” says Ryan Miller, a former Marine who runs a support group for veterans at Harborside Health Center, a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, California. “Then there’s the piece of giving back with the donations — that’s never leaving a troop behind. It’s inspiring.”

The question is where it goes from here.

By a quarter to six on Presidents Day, 15 minutes before the meeting starts, 47 veterans have already lined up near the barbecue area behind the VFW building. ”Son las seis!” a fidgety, crew-cut fellow near the front of the line announces with perhaps too much vigor when the top of the hour arrives.

Sweatt, Newsom and Kroskey keep the front of the line organized and provide Scallan with bags, which he then hands out one by one to the gathered veterans. Most SCVA members grab their bags of high-grade bud with a hearty thanks.

“Thank you!”

“Appreciate it!”

“Appreciate you!”

“Thank you so much!”

“Bless you!”

A few hours before the meeting, Newsom, Scallan and Kroskey were holed up in the SCVA office, filling the gift bags for that evening. Each paper sack was stocked with four grams of SCVA pot — either Confidential Cheese, Sour Diesel or Combat Cookies for this meeting. The flowers gave the room a decidedly herbal smell as Newsom, Scalland and Kroskey worked. A glass water pipe used for smoking concentrates sat on one table, underneath an American flag. A black Gadsden flag, bearing its iconic “Don’t tread on me” slogan, was draped vertically on the opposite wall, its message titled sideways.

In addition to the SCVA strains, each bag was filled out with a cannabis-infused edible, a half-gram of concentrated wax and a pre-rolled joint from donated supplies. Then, in a last-minute surprise, a local cultivator donated another pound of dark green bud with tiny red tentacles, which was divvied up from a massive plastic sack. 

Now all the bags have been filled, driven to the VFW and distributed. While most meeting attendees simply take theirs and leave, a few small groups hang around to chat. Some light up, but the scene is far from a smoke-out.

Kimberly Minton sits on a picnic table chatting with whomever passes by. It’s her last SCVA meeting before she moves to Reno, Nevada. When she began attending meetings last summer, she was newly homeless and struggling to reassemble her life.

More than one in 10 homeless adults in America is a veteran, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which counted 47,725 homeless vets in January 2015. Over the past several months, Minton, a Navy veteran, reestablished order in her life while making new friends at SCVA gatherings.

“That’s what I’ll miss the most,” Minton says. “Being attached to other veterans who are likeminded is a good thing. For a long time, I didn’t have that in my life. I’m going to miss the camaraderie.” 

Seated at another picnic table, 66-year-old Albert Brett sports a blue hat repping the 25th Infantry Division, which he served in Vietnam. He smoked pot daily until 1982, then quit. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013, he began taking cannabis capsules. He credits medical marijuana with helping him endure chemotherapy and subsequently beat the disease.

Brett is now homeless and living in Santa Cruz — the extended fallout, he says, of his 2013 cancer diagnosis. I ask him why he comes to these meetings, what he gets out of them besides a bag of free marijuana.

Suddenly, we’re interrupted by another SCVA member, a tall, slender African-American guy with a bushy white beard and colorful rastacap.

“Hey, Albert! How you doing?” he says.

“Hey! You know what? I went to a cannabis conference this weekend,” Brett tells him.

“Oh? How was that?”

“It was phenomenal. You would’ve…”

“Actually, I would like to go next year,” Rastacap vet interjects.

“It was crazy,” Brett says. “Maybe next year we can all…Actually, next year there’s one in Germany. We should figure out a way!”

“Hey, yeah, my nephew lives in Germany…But hey, I’ll see you Wednesday,” the other man says.

“I’ll be there. Good to see you.”

The vet in the rastacap walks off to his car as I adjust my notepad and awkwardl
consider how to re-anchor the interview. Then Brett looks me square in the eye.

That’s why I come,” he tells me. “That’s why I’m here.” 

Kroskey, the SCVA’s latest staff addition, grew up in a Pittsburgh military family. He remembers sitting in his fifth grade class on Sept. 11, 2001 and seeing the second hijacked plane hit the World Trade Center live on TV. After that moment, he never doubted he would join the military when he came of age.

Kroskey is short and wiry, with a thick red beard, tattooed forearms and an intense, energetic focus on the task or conversation at hand. For much of 2011, he was stationed in Afghanistan’s Sangin Valley. The Sangin Valley was among the most intense theaters of the entire invasion, due largely to a preponderance of landmines. One of Kroskey’s jobs as a Marine infantryman was to sweep for mines at the front of a single-file line of troops, moving with extreme caution as they crept across the desert for miles at a time. One false move could equal lost limbs or death, on marches that would drag on for hours at a snail’s pace through hostile territory.

“You never knew if your next step was going to be your last,” Kroskey says. He saw awful things.

Infantrymen returning from the Sangin Valley have been particularly susceptible to suicide; within about a year of their return in 2011, Kroskey says, three men from his own unit killed themselves. 

But it’s a military-wide problem. A survey conducted last year by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found that 51 percent of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars know at least one peer who has either committed or attempted suicide. Putting an overall number to veteran suicides is difficult. The VA, citing 2009 numbers, says the suicide rate among male veterans who use VA services is 38.4 per 100,000 people — compared to 19.4 per 100,000 in the male population at large. For women, the respective numbers are 12.8 and 4.9 suicides per 100,000 people.

Kroskey’s PTSD came largely in the form of struggling to suppress his flight-or-flight instinct after returning home. For Sweatt and Newsom, hypervigilance was a primary symptom. Both are common symptoms of PTSD, along with others manifestations such as anxiety and insomnia.

But the VA website makes its current stance on marijuana clear: “There is no evidence at this time that marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD.”

For SCVA members, that’s not such a big deal. California marijuana law as it currently stands makes getting a medical card from a non-primary physician incredibly simple. All SCVA members obtained marijuana recommendations from non-VA doctors, who can answer questions about how cannabis might interact with pre-existing medications and offer additional tips for responsible use.

But it’s not nearly as easy for veterans in other states, and the situation is more complicated if you widen the lens.

Dr. Sue Sisley, a psychiatrist, is attempting to conduct a triple-blind trial on 76 subjects to investigate the relationship between veterans, PTSD and cannabis. She says it would be the most definitive study of its kind to date. For more than five years, she’s been steering the study through approval processes — it’s fully funded through the State of Colorado as well as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and approved by multiple government agencies, but is currently awaiting final go-ahead from the DEA. Sisley, a National Rifle Association member and lifelong conservative, has never smoked pot in her life. But she’s received “literally thousands of messages” from veterans urging her to see the study through. 

“I don’t view anything as medicine until it’s been put through the control-trial process,” Sisley tells Mashable. “Until we do that, I’m never going to be able to fully embrace this idea. But I do believe the veterans. I do believe their firsthand reports. I believe them and I believe the family reports that say, ‘I’ve gotten my husband back’ or ‘I’ve gotten my father back.’ So I think we owe it to them to see this research through.”

Sweatt and Newsom say cannabis has helped medicate their hypervigilance especially well. Kroskey credits it with helping him take a third-person look at his own life to process what he’s been through. Many veterans say it spares them the numbing side-effects of prescription medications.

“It allows me to feel the emotions I’m supposed to feel and handle them properly,” says Scallan.

But while the SCVA vets testify to the power of cannabis as PTSD medication, they don’t make any scientific claims.

“The primary goal is to create a community, and I think the flowers come second,” Sweatt says. “We’re not psychologists or doctors, so we don’t know — the science of what cannabis can treat hasn’t been figured out.”

Dr. Rachna Patel, a Bay Area physician who has recommended medical cannabis since 2012, says the plant should not be seen as an automatic replacement for prescription medications. Many of her patients report relief from anxiety and insomnia — two common symptoms of PTSD. But that doesn’t mean one should simply toss prescription meds after getting a cannabis recommendation, nor that cannabis alone should be seen as a magical cure.

“The thing people need to understand is it’s a gradual process,” Patel says of those who have replaced prescription medication with cannabis entirely. “I typically recommend they take their time to see what works for them. It’s a very individual thing that really varies from person to person.”

From there, do the SCVA vets simply live the rest of their lives constantly stoned? That’s unclear and varies by individual, but even so, many see it as better than living the rest of their lives on prescription meds. Statistics imply more veterans are using cannabis, medically or not. Among veterans with both PTSD and a substance use disorder, the portion of veterans diagnosed with some degree of cannabis dependency increased from 13 to nearly 23 percent between 2002 and 2014.

For all the red tape, there have been signs — incremental as they may be — of progress in the official acceptance of medical marijuana as a viable option for veterans. The Senate in 2014 passed legislation that included a provision that would have allowed VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to treat veterans for PTSD in states where it’s legal. But the House killed that provisionlate last year. This January a bipartisan group of 21 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives sent VA Secretary Robert McDonald a letter imploring him to allow veterans and their VA doctors to discuss medical marijuana in states where it’s legal. 

Last Veterans Day, a group of former military service members, including Newsom, dumped hundreds of empty pill bottles in front of the White House to protest their lack of access to medical cannabis. And Sisley, the psychiatrist, says she won’t be denied.

“We can never turn our back on this study,” she says. “We will persevere.” 

To behold the SCVA’s indoor garden is to lose all sight of the bigger picture, however. It’s weed-porn of the most explicit fecundity.

More than 400 plants fill a 570-square foot room wall to wall. The harvest is nigh when Newsom, who runs the growing operation, leads me in for the first time. The chest-high plants drip with sticky, crystalline buds. It’s borderline erotic. Low ceilings make the effect more impressive. Charcoal filters control the smell. Dehumidifiers fight mold, and 25 high-pressure sodium double-ended bulb
s feed the plants light. Eighteen wall-mounted fans keep the air moving. Gauges in one corner give readings on humidity and CO2. A wall calendar outlines the cultivation cycle. Two-thirds of the space’s water usage is recirculated. 

To Newsom, tending to the garden is nearly as beneficial as consuming pot. Indeed, a number of programs across the country give veterans access to horticulture therapy that doesn’t involve cannabis. The deliberate pace of gardening and communion with nature are seen as having great emotional and psychological benefits.

On top of working at the SCVA about 20 hours per week, Kroskey, the Marine Corps veteran with a Sangin Valley unit, is now taking horticulture classes.

“What is the military, broad-spectrum? To defend the country, the government, the state — whatever it is, you have a purpose,” Kroskey explains. “When I got out, I didn’t have any purpose. My purpose is just to get good grades now? Well, fuck you — that’s how I felt at the time. Now when I wake up, I know I have a 45-minute drive to work and I know I have to take care of X amount of plants and mix these nutrients and everything else.”

Instead of simply giving cannabis to SCVA members twice per month, what if Sweatt and Newsom could hire them to work in the garden and teach them to grow their own? That would provide therapeutic as well economic benefits, the cofounders reason. 

Sweatt and Newsom have other plans, too, as they continue to invest more money in the SCVA and work through local business regulations. They’d like to model themselves after a Canadian program called Marijuana for Trauma and offer formal counseling on personal issues, as well as recommend marijuana strains to target specific ailments. A storefront would give them a place to do this. It would also allow them to stop selling more than 80 percent of what they grow wholesale to dispensaries; instead, they could sell directly to non-veteran medical cannabis patients. To fuel all that, a bigger grow space would allow them to harvest new crops nonstop, instead of ebbing and flowing with new batches.

The meticulously tended garden, grateful members and ambitious future plans represent control amid a murky bigger picture. Recreational marijuana legalization is expected to be on the California state ballot this November, but what form that will take remains to be seen. And at the federal level, the situation is even more disjointed. But none of this was even fathomable when Sweatt and Newsom became friends over joints while driving down to Asilomar for that farming conference back in 2010.

“Now we’re talking to the VA. Now we’re talking to local government,” Sweatt says. “I had no idea it would ever get this far. No idea.”

But even with short-term uncertainty, there’s an air of slow-motion inevitability to pot’s full emergence into the American mainstream. Medical and recreational measures continue to populate state ballots. The plant is tied to everything from sports to weddings. An overwhelming majority of young people favor its legalization. Here on the California coast — and a world removed from the wars they fought — the SCVA combat veterans are riding their own unique section of a gigantic green wave.

“One way or another, we’re coming from the shadows into the light,” Newsom says a few weeks after first showing me the indoor garden.

The American flag hangs from the wall behind him. A heavy March rain drums on the deck outside. It’s just Sweatt and Newsom at headquarters on this gray afternoon. Nearby, the garden doesn’t look nearly as wild and overgrown as before. Harvest is behind them now, and a new cycle has just begun.