Casey Robinson of Santa Cruz, Calif. served in the Marine Corps from March 2001 to March 2006, completing three tours in Iraq. He was injured in 2003, and again in 2005. After completing his term he was honorably discharged due to his injuries, then referred to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for treatment. That treatment involved a cocktail of different pharmaceutical drugs, which Robinson says made him feel unbearably numb, “like a zombie.”
That zombie effect, or inability to feel anything after using pharmaceutical drugs prescribed to veterans for psychological issues and pain, is commonly reported, as is suicide, which is listed as a possible side effect on most of the drugs commonly prescribed through the VA to treat psychological symptoms in veterans.
Robinson was luckier than many vets, an22 of whom take their own lives every day in the U.S. according to a study released bythe VA. He found relief in an alternative form of medicine, which more and more veterans are advocatingfor the right to consume: cannabis.
While participating in a cycling program through the VA, Robinson learned that many fellow cyclists had chosen to take themselves off of VA medications and use pot to treat their symptoms instead. He followed suit. Two years later he helped to form the local cooperative California Veterans Medicine, which provides medical marijuana at no cost to service-connected injured veterans. Cal Vet Meds’ activities are governed by the state of California and operate in compliance with the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Prop. 215) and Senate Bill 420.
Medical cannabis is only legal in about half of all U.S. states, and even in those states cannabis use means risking one’s VA benefits. (That is unless vets live in Colorado or Washington where the VA recently rescinded its strict ban on cannabis use.) If active members of the U.S. military are caught possessing even less than an ounce of cannabis, they risk dishonorable discharge forfeiture of all pay, and confinement for two years. Dishonorably discharged veterans often lose eligibility for VA benefits, including GI Bill and home loan guarantees. In addition, a veteran might be disqualified from federal, state and local government employment and lose the chance to obtain student aid and scholarships, and admission to higher education institutions can be impacted. It can also prevent them from obtaining licenses and certifications needed for jobs or being approved for business credit and loans.
Casey Robinson’s friend, Donna Jacobs, has a vision she thinks could help remedy all of these issues and more: she’s connecting veterans with the burgeoning cannabis industry, with the help of the world’s first cannabis job training college, Oaksterdam University.
Jacobs, the mother of a soldier who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, has been advocating nationally for veteran access to cannabis for the last decade. She hosts a veterans information show on KSCO radio in Santa Cruz, and founded the local nonprofit Not This Time Vets in 2005 in hopes of helping new generations of veterans avoid the “inadequate care” she felt Vietnam war veterans received. She established a new branch of the organization in December 2012 called Veterans Growing Victory (VGV), focused on connecting vets with the cannabis and hemp industries.
“[VGV] is exactly what we’re trying to get out there—that [cannabis is] a good alternative medicine and that vets are the perfect candidates,” Robinson said. “We don’t really want to get on the VA track. We don’t want to have all these crazy meds, and the option of [medical cannabis] … is freeing.”
As part of Veterans Growing Victory, Jacobs met with Dale Sky Jones, chancellor of Oaksterdam University, in the beginning of last year to discuss the connection between veterans’ issues and the medical cannabis industry. Soon after, Jones developed a new scholarship program called Freedom Fighters, which admits 12 veterans per year free of charge to Oaksterdam. The scholarship program began admitting military veterans last January, with Donna Jacobs as the veterans coordinator.
“I know I’m coloring so far outside the box, as is anybody stepping up and saying, ‘We need to utilize cannabis and hemp for our veterans,’” Jacobs said in a 2012 interview. “My whole take is, you don’t have to support the war, but you have to support the warriors. We’re in a war, and we have veterans coming home right now, so what are we going to do for them? It is the responsibility of Americans—citizens, not just the government—to help our vets.”
Freedom Fighters of Oaksterdam
Dale Sky Jones said in an interview last January that she named the scholarship fund Freedom Fighters because she thinks there’s a “natural synergy” between veterans and the goals of Oaksterdam University.
“These men and women have been fighting… and now that they’re back they have nothing to fight for, and no one’s asking them to fight, either,” said Jones. “It’s really hard to lose your mission in life. You lose your direction a little bit, too, and then you start to lose your gumption… and I think that may be one underlying cause of these suicides.”
Jones wants to train veterans to help “change the world” while also benefiting them personally.
“There are so many different aspects to what a veteran can learn here, as far as improving their quality of life: taking back control of their own medicine, taking control of their own symptoms and also taking control of their own lives,” Jones said.
The scholarship treats veterans to Oaksterdam’s basic program, which includes training in the history of cannabis prohibition, politics and laws as well as step by step instruction in how to open a dispensary, and hands-on lab training in plant horticulture.
“And then upon graduation from the basic program, [Jacobs’] organization is helping to assist in job placement, and is also working to change the laws,” Jones said.
Oaksterdam admits former soldiers regardless of whether they were honorably or dishonorably discharged. Veterans also recieve a 25 percent discount on all Oaksterdam classes they take.
Aseem Sappal, Oaksterdam’s director of operations, said Oaksterdam already admits veterans on a regular basis, many of whom are interested in growing plants for personal use or seeking employment.
“This gives them the opportunity to get employed and take care of themselves both emotionally and physically,” he said.
The main office of Oaksterdam sits undisguised in the middle of Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland, Calif. with a proud storefront banner marking the space. Since its founding in 2007, Oaksterdam has provided hands-on education from faculty members including policy advocate Robert Reich, court-qualified cannabis legal expert Chris Conrad, horticulturist and author Ed Rosenthal, and NORML deputy director Paul Armentano, among others. Students of Oaksterdam learn the skills they need for entering into cannabis trade jobs.
So far, nine veterans have completed trianing through Freedom Fighters, which is currently Oaksterdam’s only scholarship program. Since Oaksterdam is strictly tuition and donor-funded, scholarships are limited to four people per semester, though Sappal said they’re looking for volunteers to help extend the program. A video specific to the scholarship fund is in the works. It will feature the stories of veterans and their relationships with cannabis.
Sappal said he’s also working on establishing better relationships with the VA and hospitals.
“The VA’s official policies are not in line [with Oaksterdam’s goals], but the good thing is there are individuals within the VA who are compassionate and see the necessity of what we’re doing here,” he said. “Those individuals have actually called me and spoken to me and expressed interest. Now it’s just a matter of getting on the phones more and extending those relationships.”
Most recently Jacobs helped to admit a veteran from Alabama to Oaksterdam.
“Oaksterdam is such an amazing institute, and their word is spreading across the country,” she said. “This veteran contacted me all the way from Alabama about it.”
Sappal said about 10 percent of the Oaksterdam student body comes from out of state. In recent months they’ve seen an influx of students from Colorado and Washington hoping to get involved in the burgeoning legal cannabis industries in those states. He said Oaksterdam is looking into opening weekend seminars in the two cannabis legal states, as well as New York and Florida, where local laws appear to be moving quickly toward decriminalization of cannabis.
After he tried using cannabis to treat his own symptoms of PTSD, Perry Parks, a Vietnam combat veteran and highly decorated retired military officer of 28 years, dedicated his life to advocating for veteran access to cannabis. He lives in North Carolina where the herb remains illegal even for medical reasons, and the laws are strictly enforced.
Parks told AlterNet in a December 2013 article that he became convinced he should speak out publically on the “healthcare tragedy” of cannabis prohibition when he traveled to Rhode Island for the Cannabis Therapeutics Conference on the efficacy of medical cannabis for PTSD and traumatic brain injuries in April 2010. There, he learned the medical reasons why the herb was helping alleviate his symptoms. He met the Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam, who is best known for isolating and synthesizing THC—the psychoactive element in cannabis—in 1964. Mechoulam also discovered the brain’s endocannabinoid system and the endogenous neurotransmitter anandamide decades later, and has published research showing cannabis’ potential healing effects on Israeli soldiers with brain injuries.
“When I saw all the scientific evidence that explained why I felt like this, I became even more determined and told my church, I’m gonna go public with this, I’m going to the newspaper, and I’m gonna try to tell people look, this is wrong,” Parks said.
While government organizations like the FDA and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) have continually blocked federally sanctioned studies on the topic, research is stacking up to show that cannabis is a viable alternative medicine for physical and mental symptoms common to veterans. Brain imaging research was published last May in the journal Molecular Psychiatry providing physiological evidence of cannabis’ ability to mitigate some PTSD symptoms. In July, High Times published an article titled “Treating PTSD With Pot,” which states, “Research has shown that there is a connection between the amount of cannabinoid receptors in the human brain, known as CB1 receptors, and post-traumatic stress.”
Paul Armentano of NORML wrote an article for The Leaf Online noting that the scientific journal Drug Testing and Analysis published evidence in July that the use of cannabis and cannabinoids likely mitigates symptoms associated with PTSD.
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, has been working since 2010 to achieve government approval for a study that will look at whether smoking or vaporizing marijuana can help reduce PTSD symptoms in 50 veterans with PTSD. MAPS spokesperson Brad Burge says the organization is currently waiting to hear back from the National Institute on Drug Abuse following its October 24 resubmission of the study’s protocol—which is now FDA and IRB approved—to find out whether NIDA will sell them the marijuana they need for the study.
But until the laws change at the federal level, veterans’ ability to access cannabis remains constrained to small pockets of the nation.
“I think the word is getting out there about cannabis,” Jacobs said. “Once everything changes federally, it will really open up doors for both veterans and civilians.”
April M. Short is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort.