When U.S. soldiers return home from war, they often find themselves on the frontlines of a new battle: finding medical relief within a system that only offers FDA-approved pharmaceuticals. Things aren’t always so democratic or sensible back home in the states, despite the sacrifices these troops made when fighting for our country abroad.
Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area by a Marine Corps veteran, the Weed for Warriors Project brings together veterans who find solace in cannabis and need like-minded peers to share their experiences with. In the past, Weed for Warriors has used its network to connect veterans to affordable or free cannabis products. However, with Prop 64 – the law that regulates commercial sales of adult-use cannabis in California – launching in January 2018, giving away cannabis products for free is no longer an option.
Aside from the obvious profit motive for the cannabis industry, the state government has a tax revenue motive as well. By forcing all cannabis products to be tracked, logged, and taxed at sale (as high as 45 percent including local taxes), veterans and other impoverished patients, who often scrape by on disability checks, have few options left to procure affordable cannabis medications.
Sean Kiernan, 45, is the current president of Weed for Warriors. From 1989 to 1993, he served in the U.S. Army as airborne infantry in Latin America. After leaving the Army, he worked as a hedge fund manager on Wall Street. Everything went relatively smoothly until 2006, when the mental and emotional trauma from his combat experiences finally started to catch up to him.
Veterans Affairs (VA), the federal department that handles medical cases for U.S. soldiers once they’re discharged from service, prescribed Kiernan – as it has thousands of others veterans – a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals. In 2011, Kiernan attempted suicide, which prompted some of his friends to recommend cannabis to him over the VA’s drugs.
Cannabis took a while to begin working for Kiernan, as it usually does for most patients. Although it helped to control his symptoms, he discovered that the added benefit of having a network of fellow veterans to talk to helped just as much as weed. “You have a bunch of vets coming together to help one another,” he says, “because the system is failing them.”
However, cannabis is still a crucial therapy for many veterans like Kiernan – it can control and manage pain, nausea, depression, mood swings, anxiety, and insomnia – without the nasty side effects that come from conventional pharmaceuticals.
To keep up with California’s new regulated cannabis sales system, Kiernan spoke with MERRY JANE to discuss the organization’s new direction, and how they plan to overcome not only the obstacles erected by prohibition, but the new obstacles erected by commercialized cannabis, too.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MERRY JANE: Let’s start at the beginning. In your experience, how does cannabis help with PTSD?
Sean Kiernan: If you look at the medicines the VA gives to you, what’re they giving you? First, let’s take pain. You’re getting some type of opioid or narcotic. What’re the side effects of that? You can see addiction to synthetic heroin, basically. Beyond that? Overdose.
What else do they give you? Mood stabilizers. Lithium. SSRIs, the anti-anxiety meds, Xanax and so forth. The anti-convulsants. The anti-psychotics. The anti-depressants. And the ADD meds, because those others all make you fall asleep. Then they throw in Viagra because now you’re sexually dysfunctional, too. My point being, cannabis is a substitute for all of that – for many of us. I know triple-amputees who were on 30 pills today. Now, they take none. They use cannabis heavily.
The pills pile up because the VA keeps prescribing new ones to relieve the side effects from the initial prescriptions.
When I look at the risk profiles of a lot of the medicines [I’m] no longer taking, a lot of the objectionable points of view with regards to cannabis become moot. Because you’re concerned about cannabis’s danger relative to what? Relative to the narcotics I’m taking? The anti-depressants? The SSRIs? All of these have side effects like what? Oh, suicidal inclination. Addiction. Overdose.
We’re losing not only 41 vets a day – if you include drug overdoses along with suicide – we’re now losing over 120,000 Americans to both overdosing and suicide this year. That’s 330 Americans a day. When you have an alternative to the chief culprit in our suicide and overdose epidemics – the opioids – and the anti-psychotics and other medicines that have suicidal inclinations, it’s because they’re using these drugs to a high degree.
You ask what cannabis does? It’s a substitute for the meds that Western medicine wants us on. I think that’s the biggest issue as to why prohibition is going to be so hard to overcome.
This is a common story I hear from veterans, that they replaced their VA meds with just cannabis, just one plant.
It does so much more than just numb the pain. What cannabis also does is distracts. It’s this combination, this wonder drug. We talk about whole-plant therapy, and why it’s so important. It’s the entourage effect: CBG can put you to sleep, THC can give you euphoria, CBD is anti-inflammatory. With the entourage effect, it can replace 28 to 30 pills. There’s so many subparts to the plant. It’s nature’s medicine, used in so many cultures, and our government can’t seem to acknowledge it.
Weed for Warriors is wrapping up a documentary. Can you tell us a little about that?
We’re in discussions right now with some major groups concerning a docu-series. The film that they shot is just a camera crew following us throughout 2015. It covers who we are and how we started, and ultimately where we’re at today.
Where we’re at today, basically: under Prop 64, the old model no longer works. We used to be able to go to farms and just cut down 5, 10, 50 pounds for the vets. Then we’d have two or three chapter meetings, we’d have ounces, and we’d start giving them out. But under Prop 64, that goes away. We can’t give away free meds anymore.
The other problem we’re having is funding. And we’re not alone there; a lot of people are having that problem right now. How do we pay for this? We’re a bunch of volunteer vets, and a bunch of my vets are on disability. They don’t need that hourly wage. Unfortunately, since we don’t have money, we don’t have access to the political system. If we had money, we could amplify the voice we already have.
But we’ve accomplished a lot with no money. The problem when you have money is sponsors come in and say, “We want to control your medicine.” That’s corporate cannabis, and that’s contrary to what we’re about. We want to be about something true, and be honest, and stand up for something.
What do I mean by that? We’re going out, and we’re selling flower, apparel, merchandise. We’re also filming a docu-series or a documentary. All of these things, if successful, will bring in funding. In return, we’re starting a foundation; we’ve got to be more formalized under Prop 64. Through our foundation, we’ll provide transparency for the monitors and regulators.
What’s the funding for, exactly?
We’re going to use the money for research and access. The sad reality is — whether people want to admit it or not, veterans on disability or [not] on disability or working-class — they can’t afford to buy medicine from a dispensary. So, they get stuck on the black market.
How do we create something that increases access? Our discussions with the industry were what does this model look like? Is it a card? Is it just purchasing bulk?
We’re taking the funds from our products and investing it into lobbying, investing it into grows. This formulization is a pain in the ass. It’s way easier to do this without the rigorous regulations, and [the state government is] asking a bunch of vets with PTSD to follow this business model – it’s difficult.
But we’ve partnered with people in the industry – Legacy Brands, a cannabis branding agency out of Los Angeles, who is helping us bring our medical product line to market nationwide, and a number of amazing licensed growers, one being King’s Garden. They’ve invested in us. Now, we have a team on board to manage this and amplify the veterans’ voices.
When does it start?
We’re planning to launch November 11. We’re going to start selling product in California, but we’re doing our chapter resupply missions first. People who are going into business with us: we’re identifying veteran-owned businesses and working with them, and they’re donating medicine to our chapters. We’re getting veterans to act as sales reps. Giving out this medicine for free is kind of a thank-you to our vets.
The foundation is called Meds for Vets. We’re looking at industry programs, partners, and white labels. We’re trying to bring whoever wants to into helping vets, into something that is credible. They can identify what the funds are going to, and we’re not being exclusive; there’s other veterans’ groups we’re going to work with.
We didn’t land on the profit motive, the profit motive landed on us. Sorry, I’m from Berkeley; I’m paraphrasing Malcolm X to be funny, but it’s true.
Is Weed for Warriors currently growing?
Take a look at our social media. We help a lot of people. We are real. And we’re amplifying the message because no one else is filling that void. We’re resonating with people. More people are following us [online]. We’re getting a lot of traction. More and more people are showing up to our meetings.
We’re doing something right, so how do we stay true to that and go bigger? Most people sell out and make profit. We’re saying, let’s not do that. We have a brand, a brand just like any brand, and it stands for something. If we can monetize that, then use that money to advance the cause and fight for social justice, that’s going to make the brand that much more valuable.
Affordability of cannabis has been an issue in every state that’s gotten a recreational program. The more it’s regulated, the higher the costs. Governments argue the tax structures are needed to enforce the regulations.
That’s the propaganda. We hear it all the time out here in California. I’m just sitting here laughing because the grows that are going into places like Salinas, and places with a lot of agriculture, they can’t pass the [lab] testing. They have all the contaminants from the lettuce fields, yet the government is complaining about the environment [being contaminated] from the marijuana fields. It’s laughable.
I hear the same thing in Colorado.
It’s funny, because they say that, but the model they’ve created has exacerbated the black market. They’re causing that problem. They’re causing that issue. With the taxes at 45 percent, you can legalize the possession side of it – right? You’re not getting busted for smoking it or having it, but that’s it, right? You’re criminalizing the growing side of it. They’ve made it so inaccessible because of the huge profit margin for those people who want to follow the law.
Ironically, because cannabis is still illegal federally – even illegal in neighboring states – that’s what nurtures the black market. If someone can buy a few ounces then flip it at two or three times the price across state lines, there’s always incentive.
Prohibition has created these economies. And these economies exist, whether they’re the DEA budgets, and the civil asset forfeitures that flood the police budgets around the country so they can afford all this cool shit – the fun stuff that voters love. But it’s also the private prisons, it’s the pharmaceutical companies, it’s the addiction industry. A lot of that addiction industry is mandated by [rehab] classes. That all needs to change; it doesn’t make anything better. The reason cannabis was originally outlawed is no longer the reason prohibition can’t be undone. It can’t be undone because of the economies fueled by prohibition reaching into the trillions of dollars.
The pharmaceutical industry put $295 million into lobbying. The gun lobby put in $10 million. There’s no one who comes close to the pharmaceutical industry.
Is Weed for Warriors evolving into a collective?
No, not at all.
So you’re basically creating a hub for conscious businesses to work with veterans and low-income patients, then?
We have a problem, and we’re trying to solve the problem. We’re staying relevant. If we don’t adapt to Prop 64, we can’t do anything. I’m basically weaponizing the brand to fund the fight for what we’ve already been doing. Which is not only getting meds to vets, creating a safety net for them in the chapter location, but also advocating for them at a state and national level by highlighting the issues by how we see them.
We’re looking at this, and we’re seeing we need a lot more money. Then, we can help a lot more people. With Prop 64, now everyone’s looking for brands. What if I can take a brand that stands for something? That’s “compassionate capitalism” they’re teaching in MBA programs right now. Can you do what Paul Newman’s brand can, where they donate a percentage to the foundation? Or can you do what Ben & Jerry’s does, which is brand a product, but attach a social consciousness to what you do?
I believe Weed for Warriors is much more than just a cannabis brand. To me, as president, it’s social justice. It has to be about social justice. Cannabis is the unity part. It’s the love part. It’s this homeostasis reset button that so many people and so many cultures use, so it’s more than just a simple plant. But you can’t leave the social justice portion of this behind. At the end of the day, the veteran’s issue is that it comes from poverty.
Most of these vets are taken out of poverty. We have this system, the volunteer army, that incentivizes people to join who have the least economic options. When they get out [of service], not much changes.
The Weed for Warriors stands for something much more. This is an attempt to fill a void that we’re seeing out there. Most of the narrative is controlled by corporate cannabis that only cares about profit. They have carefully crafted messages and marketing, and everything looks great, but where’s the substance?