When Jake Scallan returned home from Iraq, he wasn’t a morning person. He’d wake up in the early afternoon, nursing a hangover from the 600 milligrams of Seroquel he took the night before. Still groggy, he’d have to swallow more pills to start his day: 200 milligrams of Zoloft and a Klonopin.
Scallan was just 20-years-old when he enlisted in the United States Air Force as a Security Policeman. In 2009 he deployed to Iraq where he served as an M2 gunner until his discharge in 2011. When he returned home to the Bay Area, he brought back with him a spinal injury, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. It was the end of his military career and the start of his medical retirement back with him.
Like most – if not all – former soldiers, Scallan sought treatment at his local Veteran Affairs hospital. He said his physicians there were low on individualized compassion and eager to dole out heavy pharmaceuticals.
“I saw a doctor and he looked at my prescriptions from my Air Force doctor and he just prescribed me another three months of those,” Scallan said. “He was like, ‘Alright, I’ll see you in three months.’ That was it.”
Aaron Newsom is a United States Marine Corps combat veteran who co-founded the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance and currently serves as its Head of Operations. He said that unfortunately, Scallan’s experience with the VA system is depressingly common.
“It seems like a lot of people are getting the same things,” he said. “If it works for one person, they figure it works for somebody else, and that’s not necessarily the case.”
In 2011, Newsom and United States Army combat veteran Jason Sweatt founded SCVA as a support group for veterans who felt the VA’s assembly-line approach to healing wasn’t working for them.
The 300 or so SCVA members have served in different wars during different decades, and they’ve all suffered from different injuries and illnesses as a result. But they do have one important thing in common, something that the VA isn’t too keen on.
They all medicate with cannabis.
At 6 p.m. on the first and third Monday of every month, members gather at the Capitola VFW, about a block from the San Lorenzo River. By the time Newsom arrives at 5:45 p.m. with his cannabis donations in tow, there’ s already 40 to 50 people there waiting for him.
He and his team hand out paper bags of marijuana grown by veterans for veterans – with local companies like Big Pete’s Treats and Utopia Meds throwing in extra donations – and it all goes to alliance members free of charge, as long as they have valid California medical recommendations.
“We might not provide enough for an entire month’s supply, but we do our part and we’ll do it consistently,” Newsom said. By providing medicine at no cost to the group, the alliance helps ease an often substantial financial burden, but it also offers opportunities for healing beyond medicinal care.
Some members take their care packs and go. Others will stay at the VFW for hours, sharing stories from their days overseas or trading advice on how to get disability approvals or and back pay for old claims, little things that can significantly improve their lives.
Newsom served eight years in the Marine Corps, including some time with an attack helicopter squadron in Afghanistan. Like Jake Scallan, he came back with physical and emotional wear-and-tear.
He and Sweatt both started studying horticulture after their tours of duty. Newsom said the intricacies of cannabis cultivation work in opposition to the objectives of combat that veterans are used to: Attack. Overwhelm. Eliminate.
To remedy that mindset, alliance members are welcome to participate in the grow and cultivation of the group’s product. Even those with disabilities who can’t supply the physical labor are allowed to spend time with the plants and learn about their medicine.
“That’s what we all come back with stuck in our heads,” Newsom said. “If we’re able to take [the veterans] and slow them down, [we can] give them a moment of peace.”
Scallan was introduced to medicinal cannabis by a friend, and it wasn’t long before he was managing his symptoms without pills. But when he looked for a support system of likeminded soldiers, he couldn’t find one.
“The military is real big on esprit de corps, camaraderie and brotherhood,” he said. “I feel like a lot of the guys that smoke cannabis, there’s no place for us.”
So he started facilitating meetings at the San Jose dispensary where he worked security. There, he met Newsom and Sweatt, who were delivering to a small group of alliance members at the time. The men adopted Scallan’s support group, and now he helps manage the alliance’s crop.
The organization runs a number of grow sites around Santa Cruz, working with breeders to find medicine to fit their needs. They’ve developed a couple of signature strains so far: Veterans OG helps insomnia and pain, while Combat Cookies reportedly eases PTSD symptoms.
Unfortunately, Newsom and Sweatt don’t have a storefront, so the alliance hasn’t been able to do any research into its different strains. Opening a dispensary, and expanding into communities outside of Santa Cruz, are their immediate objectives.
But the DEA still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug with “no provable medical use.” As a result, the federally-funded VA isn’t allowed to prescribe it, and they won’t help patients pay for it, even in states where medical marijuana is legal.
More importantly, the VA can’t do research into cannabis as a treatment option until the classification is changed.
For now, the SCVA members still have their twice-a-month meetings, but other soldiers across the country, who gave just as much as themselves, aren’t so lucky.
And Scallan thinks it’s time for them to speak up.
“It should be your right to use this medicine,” he said. “You need to be in contact with local government officials and tell them: This is what I need. This is what I want. This is what I fought for. This is what I believe in.”
TELL US, do you think veterans deserve medical marijuana?