Aaron Newsom, co-founder of the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, sorts cannabis flowers. (KRISTA ALMANZAN/KAZU)
On a Monday night in Live Oak’s Grange Hall, Seth Smith stands before a room full of veterans sitting in folding chairs. They range in age and distance traveled to get here. Some are local. Others drove three to four hours.
This is the monthly meeting of the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance’s Compassion Program. Veterans gather to learn about local veterans services, talk to others who are self-medicating with marijuana and pick up a voucher for free cannabis at the SCVA’s dispensary.
“The pharmacy is open till 9 p.m. every day,” Smith tells the group. He’s a Navy veteran and director of communications for the SCVA.
“I think there could be a Veterans Alliance in every state. There could be Veterans Alliances in every community with the same mission,” says Smith.
Part of that mission is to provide veterans with free cannabis. It’s the charitable arm of the Veterans Alliance’s marijuana business.
It all started back in 2011. Co-founders and veterans Aaron Newsom and Jason Sweatt started growing cannabis as a substitute for the drugs the VA had them on. Then they started sharing it with other veterans.
“We started small. I mean I remember our first couple of meetings there were only like 10 to 15 veterans. Then the next meeting it was doubled, and doubled. And by the summertime we had over 100 vets coming to the meeting. And then we were having barbecues,” says Sweatt.
Today, about 1,000 veterans are enrolled in the Compassion Program.
“Ultimately our goal is to try to get the VA to treat cannabis as a legitimate, therapeutic option for veterans for all types of issues,” says Smith.
But pot is illegal in the eyes the federal government. That prevents the VA from prescribing it and conducting research into its use.
Although the VA has done some limited research into cannabis, under the Trump administration, it clarified that federal law restricts its ability to conduct research into medical marijuana.
“Our veterans deserve better, and what our veterans deserve is research,” says Southern California congressman Lou Correa. He serves on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “We need to find out what cannabis is good for and what cannabis is better for, and that’s what we want to do.”
Correa supported legislation that would tell the Department of Veterans Affairs it does have the legal right do research. It would also direct the VA to study the safety and effectiveness of medical cannabis for treating PTSD and chronic pain.
Congressman Jimmy Panetta also co-sponsored the VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act.
“To continue to put our head in a hole in the ground and not to acknowledge that cannabis is part of our fabric of our society, to not acknowledge that our veterans are using cannabis, I think it's just plain criminal,” says Correa.
Veterans like Lenny Bernstein have been using marijuana for decades. At his home in Soquel there’s a wall dedicated to his military service. On it, a case full of medals.
“Well, the ones I’m most proud of ... the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star,” says Bernstein.
Bernstein is a World War II veteran. He was an Army Combat Ranger. If you want stories he has thousands. Some he’d prefer to forget.
“Death was all around us all the time, and explosions were around us all the time. So all of that stuff, you know, comes together and they form, I didn't know at the time, but lifelong memories. I couldn't sleep,” says Bernstein.
Bernstein still occasionally smokes pot to ease pain and help him sleep. He gets his stash free from the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance.
At 92, he says he’s too old to become an activist on this issue.
“Yes, I think it would help other people because they could get it prescribed,” says Bernstein.
That’s the future the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance has been preparing for. With two grow facilities and access to veterans who use cannabis, they are ready to help with research.
And if the day ever comes when the VA offers cannabis in its pharmacy, Aaron Newsom says they’re ready for that, too.
“I mean ultimately we would love to get a government contract to be able to grow on a national level for the VA, for veterans,” says Newsom.