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The VA can’t provide cannabis to veterans with PTSD, so this group gives it out for free

August 15, 2017

Once a month, staff members at the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance (SCVA) fill more than 100 brown paper bags with high-quality medical cannabis and pass them out for free at a local community center. For the military veterans who receive it—many of whom struggle with PTSD—the medical cannabis acts as a lifeline to health.

The SCVA, which operates out of an old office in a Santa Cruz neighborhood, has been serving local men and women since 2011, when the organization was founded by military veterans Aaron Newsom and Jason Sweatt.

After six years of service, though, SCVA’s mission now faces challenges due to an ironic new development: the legalization of cannabis in California. New regulations due to take effect in early 2018 don’t allow the SCVA to continue operating as they do today.

“We’ve tried to create this environment of peace through cultivation and cannabis with a purpose.”
Aaron Newsom, SCVA Co-Founder

“With the new law, if we’re not at the end of the chain of custody, we are not allowed to give away anything for free,” Newsom told me during a recent interview in his office in Santa Cruz. “We have to get a storefront where we can retail our product and determine whether we sell it for $50 or $1.00–or provide it in a volunteer-return basis.”

Newsom, 35, is clean-cut and bright-eyed. He served in the marine corps before co-founding the SCVA. Sweatt, 41, is a 10-year Army vet and director of the SCVA. He offered a quieter hello behind black-framed glasses.

As we spoke earlier this summer, workers were busy carrying out construction projects needed to turn the space into a retail cannabis store. California’s Prop 64, which will soon regulate what was once a loose, laissez faire medical cannabis market, requires that the SCVA obtain state licensing and operate a storefront in order to continue carrying out its mission.


Cannabis and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

That mission includes growing their own medicine.

In the SCVA’s garden, hundreds of cannabis plants are cultivated by a staff of volunteers and a few paid staff.

Rows upon rows of cannabis plants vegetated in silent darkness, lit only by a dim green light. Fans hummed quietly, creating a pleasant breeze in the branches. The grow rooms feel peaceful, surrounding curious visitors among the slow growth of life.

“We’ve tried to create this environment of peace through cultivation and cannabis with a purpose,” Newsom said. “It’s horticultural therapy.”

Buds of Kosher Kush.

Another room was brightly lit and populated with flowering plants that filled the room with their sweet, fragrant aromas. Kosher Kush, White Fire OG, and a Tangie hybrid were among the stock that sat glittering with trichomes. Though Jason and Aaron started the garden years ago as a twosome, a few other veterans now help tend the plants.

“A lot of these guys were over there [in war] kicking in doors and taking lives,” Newsom explained. “They’re able to come back to slow growth and cultivating life, and then [they’re able] to bring back life in [other] patients.”

When we returned to the office, SCVA staff members had begun packing freshly cured cannabis into brown bags for their veteran brothers and sisters. Music danced in the air, dogs flopped on the floor, and between busy hands, cannabis was shared. Aaron excitedly and emphatically rallied everyone between puffs, and in that moment where it seemed everyone was smiling in unison, it was hard to imagine what each of them had been through.

● ● ●

Veterans gather for the monthly SCVA meeting, where medical cannabis is distributed.

For many of those who live with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), there is no cure–only temporary relief. It’s a condition that lives in the basement of your mind. Now and then, a trigger kicks in the door leading down to the dark, ushering in fear and anxiety. The dormant trauma, living and breathing below the surface, snaps awake by flashbacks, nightmares, or subtle reminders in daily life. Like a scab on the psyche, it gets torn open again and again.

Therapy and mood-stabilizing drugs have helped many patients strip the “disorder” aspect of their PTSD so that it’s possible to live without the constant looming shadow of memory. But for others, conventional treatments don’t work.


PTSD, insomnia, and cannabis: What’s the evidence say?

Some patients with this type of chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD have found that cannabis helps bridle PTSD symptoms. It calms an overactive mind, slowing it down to a sustainable pace where peace can be found. Cannabis can also reduce a patient’s reliance on heavier pharmaceuticals, medications with side effects that can devastate a person’s quality of life.

● ● ●

Members of the SCVA tuning in to announcements before cannabis is given out.

Later that day, an SCVA staff member showed me some footage he’d taken during his own combat tour.

On a laptop screen, I watched as a shaky camera moved through a dusty stone corridor. It followed a group of soldiers, guns in hand. The sound of footfalls and muffled movement carried on for just seconds before a blast overwhelmed the senses, blackening sight and deafening ears. When the dust cleared, a soldier was on the ground, surrounded by shouts. A medic leaned over the wounded soldier, repeating words of reassurance.

The soldier who’d captured the footage of the detonated IED (improvised explosive device) was standing behind me, alongside other SCVA staff members. They stood watching with fixed eyes and folded arms, eyebrows folded slightly inward.


For Veterans With PTSD, Medical Marijuana Can Mean a Good Night’s Sleep

Knowing that PTSD manifests differently for everyone, I asked Newsom, Sweatt, and other members of the SCVA what the condition looked like for them.

For Sweatt, the many convoys he did in Iraq left him unable to drive for two years. “I experienced a lot of heightened alert, my head was on a swivel,” he admitted. “When I drove, I was really hypervigilant, looking around, constantly checking my surroundings.”

Sweatt had difficulty reintegrating into civilian life. He moved to California and lived in a van for six months. The re-entry difficulty and social isolation seemed to be common among many of the veterans I spoke to.

“I saw patients whose lives were destroyed by the ravages of drugs and alcohol, but never anyone who was sick from cannabis.”
Dr. Jordan Tishler, Former VA physician

“We’ve got homeless veterans, and many who [struggle to gain] employment and education,” Newsom said. “Returning to civilian life, everyone is out on their own.”

Due to the Schedule I status of cannabis, VA doctors are legally unable to recommend it to veterans. Instead, they are left to prescribe a cocktail of antidepressants, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, opioids, and sleeping medications.

“The VA tends to group us into two categories,” Newsom explained. “You’re either the PTSD depressed category and you get these three sets of pills, or you’re the angry type and you get these three sets of pills. It’s like a conveyer belt.”

These pharmaceuticals can sometimes create more problems than they correct. Most of the veterans I spoke to noted that cannabis helped them reduce their reliance on opioids, benzos, and other prescription pharmaceuticals. But there’s a catch. The pharmaceutical costs are covered by the VA. Cannabis is not.


Here’s Why the DEA Will Never Reschedule Cannabis

And yet it seems to work. I heard a lot of comments like these from veterans working with SCVA:

  • “Cannabis helps me stay in the present.”
  • “It helps tone down the hypervigilance.”
  • “It helps me sleep.”
  • “It helps me stay calm.”

Lucy, a soft-spoken marine veteran and SCVA member, sat and talked with me for a while. “A lot of therapists who don’t understand veterans, they’re quick to prescribe the same pills I was trying to get away from,” she lamented. With cannabis, however, Lucy found relief.

“I thought it might mellow me out,” she smiled. “It worked.”

● ● ●

Clones growing in SCVA’s cannabis garden.

To find out why cannabis could be helpful to a mind plagued by trauma, I contacted Dr. Jordan Tishler in Boston.

A Harvard medical graduate who worked for 15 years as a VA physician, Tishler went on to establish a private practice, Inhale MD, so he could advise patients on medical cannabis.

“Time and time again I saw patients whose lives were destroyed by the ravages of drugs and alcohol,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “It occurred to me that I had seen all these harmed individuals, but never anyone who was sick from cannabis.”

Tishler saw firsthand the therapeutic potential of cannabis for the treatment of both pain and PTSD, so he dove into the research to learn more. He came up with a theory about how cannabis helps calm the mind of a PTSD patient.


How cannabidiol (CBD) works for treating anxiety

“THC and CBD tend to work as a retrograde postsynaptic shut-off valve,” he said. “Their job is to decrease the level of stimulation in systems that tend to be excitatory. These are important systems in our brain that can get revved up and overly triggered [by PTSD or anxiety]. Cannabis tends to dampen those systems.”

Another theory, first posited by neurologist Ethan Russo, proposes that conditions like PTSD can result in a deficiency of endogenous molecules (called “endocannabinoids”) that serve to balance the signals Tisher described. The molecules in cannabis, like THC and CBD, function like these endocannabinoids and can help to restore that balance of signals. And that, in theory, is why PTSD and anxiety patients feel calmer under the effects of cannabis.

For his PTSD patients, Tishler generally recommends a small dose of cannabis at night just before going to bed, noting, “The anti-anxiety effect will last that next day even though the intoxication has worn off.”

For people with PTSD, sleepless nights often open the door to other symptoms and setbacks. Addressing insomnia and nightmares is a common first step. But it’s important, Tishler cautioned, to consider starting at a low dose.


Less Is More: Why Low-Dose Cannabis Is Important

“Cannabis is a complex actor,” he acknowledged. “It can be very good for anxiety at low dose and very bad for anxiety at high dose.”

Most doctors aren’t as well-equipped as Tishler to explain the benefits and risks of medical cannabis. Some haven’t educated themselves on cannabis. Others are hampered by ties to the federal government.

As a result, many patients are using medical cannabis with no professional guidance whatsoever. Others have no safe access to it, period. The continued absence of compassionate cannabis laws across the nation is astounding to doctors and patients who have experienced an improved quality of life firsthand.

● ● ●

SCVA members line up to receive their monthly cannabis donation.

Back in Santa Cruz, upwards of 100 military veterans poured into a local community hall for the monthly SCVA meeting. Old metal folding chairs screeched against the wood floors as veterans took their seats and caught up with old friends.

At the front of the room, the SCVA staff prepared to pass out brown paper bags full of cannabis grown by their small team. A staff member tossed out silicone accessories for cannabis concentrates, cracking jokes amid booming laughter.

After a few short announcements, the veterans signed in, as if at a dispensary, and accepted the brown bags with smiles and handshakes. Many stuck around long after the meeting ended to catch up with other members. The sense of connection between them contrasted sharply with the isolation and social withdrawal many of them experienced after returning from service.

“We’re not therapists, and we’re not doctors,” Aaron Newsom said. “We just understand each other. That in itself is a healing tool.”

Bailey Rahn's Bio Image

Bailey Rahn

Bailey is a senior content manager at Leafly, specializing in strains and health. She's spent 7+ years researching cannabis products, spreading patients’ stories, and exploring healthy ways of integrating cannabis into daily life.

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  • cactusjim420

    This article can bring tears to your eyes, as a soldier you fought for our country, then your country fights against you, I wish we had an HONEST government, we could all use it., Thank You veterans for your service, and thanks to the SCVA, your my heros

  • Jeff Hudson

    This is a wonderful article.

  • Jackson Shredder

    We have to have peoples backs, veterans or not. When I joined the Navy in 1985 I would never have thought our country could be in the state it is in now. Everything is important in our lives today. Most of my military buddies are already deceased but it was one hell of a trip. Would not take it back ever ! We will never be rich but at least I can sleep at night !! Were all humans and all in need of help no matter what our designations are in this world.

  • Wise Pen

    HHHMMMM,wow,let me give you deadly weapons,let me do devastating destruction to the enemy and empower me with guilt;however protect me from a plant??????

    • Ima Straight

      Exactly. The military is a de facto slavery system. Once you sign up, they own your body and can force you to do anything. I am not discounting the necessity of having the military, so shut up all you haters. I am just saying that not everyone is cut out for that level of loss-of-control. The flagrant disregard some ‘leaders’ show for the real consequences of their bloviating threats is criminal, especially for those who shirked their own shared responsibilities, when it was their turn.

      • Wise Pen

        This has become a war against medical marijuana and veterans.

        • Ima Straight

          Well, for-profit prisons have cropped up nation-wide (how can this be constitutional?) and they need their “customers”…. Dick Cheney is an investor and there are rumors of others in the current administration investing as well. This fails the stench test for conflict of intrest!

          I also see a real vindictiveness, a ‘sore loser’ attitude from those in power (courts, DOL, employers) who opposed legalization at all. (Which is anti-democracy) They will put as many roadblocks, complications and illegal restrictions on as many people as they can, including medical patients.

          The recreational market in WA has also basically thrown these patients under the bus. Hey they got theirs, so float away.
          The vast amounts of money being made commercially and via taxes has blinded the recreational toker and average legislator to the real suffering that they are causing by ignoring the needs of medical patients.
          And no, I am not any of those things. I just see the way the regulations are morphing and it is so offensive! It’s bullying.

          • Deneice Clinkscale

            And remember America, is INCORPORATED

        • Deneice Clinkscale

          You are so correct, at the rate that veterans are commit suicide the VA should be on the band wagon if they truly, care.

      • Julio L Ruiz

        On the same note…The whole system is a “de facto” slavery system.

      • Deneice Clinkscale

        I agree, because once you read the fine print it says exactly, that; problem is one you start going against the program or get an illness they kick you out of the military with no support system and you have to find your own way basically, however, there are various resources for veterans but for many of the good ones the veteran must be receiving VA benefits to qulify.

  • krate


  • katkelly57

    Great story, great people…..thank you so very much for helping my brother and sister vets.
    PTSD can be very devastating, leaving a person incapacitated in so many ways.

    Too bad there aren’t more organizations around the country doing this, where cannabis is currently sold.
    I’m thankful here in WA state that cannabis is available…I’m just not happy it went from medical to recreational w/o any provision for those who truly need it medically to cope….the prices are now jacked up.

    If any vets in the Seattle area are looking for a good deal…Greenworks Cannabis on Lake City Way (intersection of LCW and Northgate Way, next door to Luciano’s Pizza) has $5 Fridays on grams and pre-rolled joints.

  • Walter Radziszewski

    I wish Connecticut had a program like this. Being a totally disabled veteran, the VA has me on all kinds of medications which I hate and the medical marijuana is just to expensive for me to afford on a regular basis. The VA should allow and supply medical marijuana treatment for us Veterans!

    • Marchell McLeod

      You should sign up with the compassion care program gives you coupons in CT of 25 0/0ff and a item for a 1 $ according to your income

  • Kristofor Gullickson


  • Majik53

    Stop spamming.

  • Ima Straight

    It’s not just Veterans who get PTSD. As a violent crimes victim, I’m screwed. I’ve become disabled and on Medicaid, delivered by a giant HMO; they won’t consider anything like this of course.
    But get on a legal MMJ list, and Jeff Sessions is acomin’ for you! They are already demanding IP addresses of people who just looked at an anti-trump website. People were concerned about this scrutiny years ago and they were right.

  • Chris Newman

    Great article! Been there, done that, starting back in post-Nam.

    Monty Roberts, the original “Horse Whisperer,” runs a no-cost “Horse Sense and Healing” three day equine therapy program in Solvang, CA for vets and other first responders. He has a slightly different angle on PTSD: It’s not a Disorder, it’s an Injury. i.e. PTSI

    From: :

    “The first thing Roberts wants participants in his clinics to know is that post-traumatic stress is not a disorder, it’s an injury.

    “You don’t heal a disorder. You either surgically remove a disorder, or you surgically augment a disorder, or you live with a disorder. … When you’re perfectly normal physically and you put on the uniform and you go to war, and you come back not normal, it’s an injury,” Roberts said. Injuries, physical or mental, will heal.”

    The difference in perspective does make a difference.

    The main HS&H program page and how it works: Anyone interested in helping to launch a HS&H program in the NW Washington state region? If so, contact me through FB.

    Ride Stoned! 🙂

  • Joseph E Chapman Jr

    I wish there was something like this here in MN. I could certainly use the support. I served in the A.F. and Army, and grew up in USMC. Cannabis is certainly more helpful than pharmaceuticals or alcohol.

  • eagtle

    it helps me with my PTSD from 19 yrs of hell in my family. AS the article stated it allows me to slow enuf 2 grieve the past n live in present. 4 me it has been a gift from God. I still have 2 do the inside work but now it is manageble.

  • Bright Stone

    Hello mate

  • Lawrence.K.Watkins

    Hello mates

  • Lawrence.K.Watkins

    I was directed by a friend to seek marijuana related diseases cure from Dr Felipe J. Laliberte who get it through to me here in New york 2 days ago discretely and very fast. I’ll say i vote for him 90% legit . Thanks to you Grace for linking me up with Dr J. Laliberte, he is legit love you Doc my bother’s Glycoma and brain tumor is now 85% free . Get him on #(785) 251-8423

  • Will Cunningham

    It’s the only thing that stops the suffering and 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Why can’t veterans have the one medication that works for them? It’s Veterans day now, please speak up for those who are suffering and fighting for our freedoms.

  • Will Cunningham

    I’m wanting to die. I have high functioning autism with bad PTSD. I’m terrified to go to sleep. I know what works but it’s illegal. I’ve been on 22 prescriptions and they have only made things worse. PLEASE SOMEONE PROTEST OR DO SOMETHING WE ARE DYING, NO ONE IS SEEING THE SUFFERING THE HANDICAPPED AND VETERANS ARE GOING THROUGH. ITS TOO PAINFUL TO SUFFER ALL DAY EVERYDAY AND REALIZE NO ONE CARES AND BECAUSE OF MONEY AND GREED THEY LET YOU SUFFER

  • Jason Irwin

    when was this article published i need to know for a college speech

  • Nick Saint Onge

    I wish i could do this in Michigan. Wish i could grow my own meds! Wish we could start an organization to help vets with upfront costs.

  • Raymond Kegley

    As a Vet in severe pain i sure wish we had a group like this here in Eastern Ky