It was 3 a.m. on a March morning in 2013 when Roger Martin, a 64-year-old retired veteran of the U.S. Army, had an epiphany.
He had spent the preceding months training his new German shepherd puppy at a facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he met a slew of young veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many were taking 25 to 30 pharmaceutical drugs every day in an attempt to treat conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder, but nothing was helping.
“The only reason these American heroes are taking these prescription drugs is because they’re free,” he said. "Veterans deserve to have cannabis given to them for free.”
While the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs doles out drugs like OxyContin and Ambien — both of which Martin became dependent on for more than a decade — cannabis is not an option. Yet some veterans say cannabis has been effective in treating everything from chronic pain to anxiety, depression, anger management and even multiple sclerosis, Martin said.
“Thousands of veterans now tell me to my face that cannabis is the only thing that’s ever helped them with PTSD,” Martin said.
These stories of success, coupled with the fact that more than 50 veterans die every day from overdosing on prescription meds or committing suicide, compelled Martin to start Grow for Vets in order to distribute no-cost or low-cost weed to former military members, he said. In the less than three years since the nonprofit has been up and running, the group has served more than 40,000 veterans and given away $1.2 million in free cannabis to veterans in states where medical marijuana is legal, he said.
“I anticipate giving away at least another million dollars’ worth in California,” Martin said. “The lion’s share of that will be in Los Angeles.”
Although Grow for Vets was founded in Colorado, three weeks ago its headquarters was relocated to Las Vegas in order to be closer to the massive veteran population in L.A. and greater Southern California, Martin said. Grow for Vets is in the process of setting up shop in L.A.’s South Bay and rolling out a new delivery service for L.A. County that’s intended, in large part, for vets who are agoraphobic, immobile or simply lacking the transportation or finances to commute to a dispensary.
“To drive from one end of L.A. to the other, it can be an expensive proposition,” Martin said.
But for now, delivery is still illegal in the City of Los Angeles. Although many cannabis businesses and interest groups say the passing of Measure M is a step in the right direction, giving the City Council the authority to regulate the "transportation of cannabis products," there are still quite a few hurdles to the legalization of delivery services.
Starting in 2018, new state regulations dictate that delivery should only be allowed if attached to an actual weed store or chain of cannabis businesses. This is a sentiment that Los Angeles city officials seem to agree with, as they have a track record of cracking down on third-party delivery services. Last year, a court upheld an L.A. city attorney's injunction against weed delivery app Nestdrop; Speed Weed, once one of the largest delivery services in California, also was forced to shutter operations.
Yet Martin has no fear of "pushing the envelope" with Grow for Vets' delivery service, he said, adding that his two legal teams have advised that the nonprofit should be in the clear as long as it's a collective.
So Martin is pressing forward and currently recruiting members to join the Grow for Vets collective (non-veterans also are welcome to apply) and to become delivery drivers (veterans are given priority), for the door-to-door operation that’s expected to launch by the end of April. Martin also is scouting venues in L.A. to hold a cannabis giveaway for veterans over the Memorial Day weekend.
All the products Grow for Vets distributes are lab-tested, Martin said, and much of it comes through donations, from companies including OpenVAPE, a Colorado-based vape pen company, and Incredibles, a producer of edibles and concentrates.
As to how military members prefer to consume their cannabis? The older guys often prefer smoking it, Martin said, because it was what they did in Vietnam. As for the young bucks: “A lot of veterans are big on vaping and edibles. I was a heavy cigarette smoker until 1985, so I’m kind of anti-smoking anything.”
Building L.A.’s delivery operation from the ground floor are two of Southern California’s own veterans, 57-year-old Mike Withers, now retired, and 53-year-old Jeffrey Wortham, who works as a private dog trainer. Both have been diagnosed with PTSD and both are now big proponents of the therapeutic powers of cannabis.
Withers has been taking prescription opiates for 37 years. After months of research, he tried cannabis (for the first time since high school) on Jan. 15, 2016, and the results have been “life-changing.” Since he’s turned to cannabis, he’s been able to reduce the number of pain pills and muscle relaxers he consumes.
“I am off a lot of it to where I don’t have the ulcers, I don’t have the kidney problems, obviously just feeling better healthwise," he said.
Wortham turned to cannabis about five years ago, after suffering from migraines on a daily basis since 2007. The migraines were a result of a botched operation Wortham had while on active duty, and nothing he tried — from acupuncture to pilates to prescription drugs — helped him.
“I had to find a better way,” he said.
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One pill prescribed by the VA was effective but, because of its super strength, Wortham was only prescribed nine a month — not the 30 he needed to battle daily, debilitating pain.
Then Wortham discovered cannabis; first smoking it and then turning to CBD oil and pills that “worked like a champ.”
“The migraines subsided to the point that, instead of getting them every day, or two to three times a day, I would get them every three days,” he said. “So as far as I was concerned, that was progress.”
Cannabis is not the “cure-all” for all veterans, said Martin, and some who experiment with it are disappointed with the results, often because they haven’t been educated in the different strengths and strains. But Martin has seen too many veterans who, due to economic circumstances, were forced to take what the V.A. gave them.
“I decided at that time that I would do this until veterans had safe access to free medical cannabis, the same way they have safe access to the deadly prescription drug cocktails,” said Martin.