Refresh Checked Unchecked Menu Search Shopping bag Geolocation Person Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube Info Icon CBC Icon CBC Shape CBD Icon CBD Shape CBG Icon CBG Shape THC Icon THC Shape THCV Icon THCV Shape Loading…
Advertise on Leafly

After Service, These Veterans Are Finding New Careers—in Cannabis

September 6, 2017

Inside a nondescript industrial warehouse outside Downtown Los Angeles, nestled among a sea of other nondescript warehouses, Army veteran Steven Passmore is hard at work. His hair is pulled back with a thin, stretchy headband, and beads of sweat drip down his temples as he shuttles between temperature-controlled rooms. Heat, humidity, and the skunky smell of sensimilla ebb and flow as he traverses the maze of cultivation rooms that make up the grow facility for THC Design.

Passmore, 33, started working in the warehouse about a month ago as part of the company’s recently launched internship for veterans. The 12-week, paid program teaches the cannabis cultivation process from seed to sale, emphasizing on on-the-job learning.

“For some veterans, they need a dog. For some of them, they need a support group. For me, I like plants,” Passmore says. “I like the idea and the opportunity to help something live, to help something grow.”


Seed to Sale: How Legal Cannabis Is Grown

The internship program, Passmore says, “definitely was a perfect fit for me.” He’d tried to break into the cannabis biz before, even going door-to-door handing out resumes at dispensaries, but to no avail. It seemed being a veteran wasn’t widely acceptable in the industry at the time, he says. But while other companies may have boxed out Passmore out, THC Design offered him a foot in the door. With help from community partners such as the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance, the company actively solicited veterans and received about 65 applications.

Though the program was designed to accommodate a total of only four interns, Ryan Jennemann, THC Design’s co-founder and lead consultant, said he was so impressed by the applicant pool that he ended up hiring three veterans as full-time employees and two more as interns.

“I was doing it because I wanted quality employees in the company,” Jenneman says, noting that veterans, in his experience, tend to be smart, respectful, and hard-working. “It wasn’t some PR stunt or marketing venture.”

Zac Williams and Steven Passmore, whom THC Designs found through a veteran-outreach initiative, stands next to company cofounders Jairia Pass and Ryan Jennemann in one of the facility’s flower rooms. (Alexander Drecun for Leafly)

But there’s a personal reason behind the program, too. Jennemann’s father died from heart failure at 47, after years of using doctor-prescribed opiates. His father was a medical cannabis advocate, Jennemann says, but it was illegal in his home state of Oklahoma, so he was unable to use the drug as he wished.


Prescription Drug Use Falls in Medical Cannabis States

Passmore, too, was prescribed a pile of pills before he found medical cannabis. After breaking his clavicle during a tour in Iraq, he received an honorable discharge in 2007. But when he returned to the civilian world, he says, he had a difficult time reintegrating. He began going to the Veterans Affairs clinic, and, like many veterans, was given a laundry list of prescription medications to cope with PTSD, insomnia, anxiety, and overall “readjustment issues.”

When his mother, a nurse for more than 20 years, took a look at the list of pharmaceuticals he was prescribed, she urged Passmore not to take any of them and instead find a natural alternative, he recalls. After extensive online research that drew on everything from academic research to YouTube videos, Passmore decided to give cannabis a shot.

Not only did he start medicating with cannabis, he also began cultivating plants in a small closet at home. It helped spark his interest and prepare him for the internship at THC Design. The gig—which is set to transition into a full-time position— is a  “dream come true,” Passmore says. Frankly, he confides, he would even do it for free.


Cannabis as an Opioid Exit: 5 Real-Life Stories

Luckily, he doesn’t have to. THC Design’s two veteran-interns get paid $15 per hour, a few dollars above LA’s current minimum wage. The internship also includes a copy of Jorge Cervantes’ Cannabis Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to Cultivation & Consumption of Medical Marijuana, known to many as “The Grower’s Bible.”

Passmore says he appreciates the hands-on structure of the internship, which gives him the opportunity to learn everything from how to transplant clones and harvest product to how to troubleshoot problems, such as mold and pests. It’s a chance to learn by doing, he says. “When we got here, we were kind of just thrown in the mix.”

“Ninety percent of all military knowledge is on-the-job training,” says Navy vet Zac Williams.

Under the bright light and cool air of one of the cultivation rooms, Navy veteran Zac Williams clutches a tall can of Monster energy drink as he walks between rows of flowering cannabis plants. Though it’s not yet noon, this is Williams’ second super-caffeinated beverage of the day; his schedule requires he leave his Inland Empire home by 4:30 a.m. to make the 2 ½ hour commute to THC Design’s lab.

Williams was released from the Navy last year. Stationed as a medic at posts across the world— Micronesia, Hawaii, the Middle East—he learned the fundamentals of laboratory health and safety. He worked a great deal in industrial hygiene compliance, becoming well-versed in processes such as water purification. Though he’s been working at THC Design’s lab only for about a month, he speaks about the science of cannabis with the familiarity of a long-time professional.

“Since I got out, I lost 50 pounds switching from alcohol to weed or cannabis.”
Zac Williams, Navy veteran

When Williams applied for the internship, THC Design saw his background and offered him a full-time job. Occupational health and safety are expected to be huge issues for California’s cannabis industry when the adult-use market goes legal next year, Williams says, noting that he’s already fluent in standards like federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lab requirements, which dictate things such as where saftey placards and eye-washing stations need to be located.

Though Williams brought a bounty of knowledge from his time in the service, he’s also been learning as he goes. His Navy background, he says, helped prepare him to dive right in.

“Ninety percent of all military knowledge is on-the-job training, so we’re accustomed to not necessarily reading the books but listening to our superiors,” he said. “See one, do one, teach one—and we’re ready to go.”

Program participant Brandon Waller in THC Design’s reservoir room. (Alexander Drecun for Leafly)

As a salaried employee, Williams doesn’t get paid for working overtime. Yet he still clocks plenty of 12-hour days, he says, in large part because this is the first time he’s ever really looked forward to going to work.

In addition to his full-time job at THC, Williams is going to school for chemistry at National University in Ontario, CA, and hopes to attend UC Irvine for his master’s degree.

Like many in the cannabis biz, Williams also regularly consumes the product, both for medical needs and recreation. When he was in the military, he drank heavily and gorged on prescription pain medications and muscle relaxers—a habit he couldn’t afford once he returned to civilian life, he says.


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

He’s not alone. The fallout from prescription pills, such as liver damage, addiction, and overdose, has hit veterans especially hard. According to a 2013 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had issued, on average, more than one opiate prescription per patient over the course of two years.

For many, cannabis offers a healthier, more holistic alternative.

“Since I got out, I lost 50 pounds switching from alcohol to weed or cannabis, and now I use it every day pretty much,” Williams says.


At This LA Rehab Center, Cannabis Is an ‘Exit’ Drug

In Williams current role, he’s involved in THC Design’s “post-extraction” processes, which include operations such as ethanol winterization—purifying and refining the end product—as well as testing new concepts for concentrate-based products. The position allows him to experiment with low-dose vape pens that provide enough CBD to manage his pain but not so much THC as to have psychoactive effects.

“We do a little bit of research and development,” he says with a grin and a laugh. “A new product comes out, we like to test it and see how it tastes.”

Futureberries on Day 54 of flower in Flower Room 5 (Alexander Drecun for Leafly).

According to Ophelia Chong, the company’s community liaison, the internship program allowed THC Designs to make the most of its community investment. While the company can “give $5,000 and put our logo on a conference,” Chong says, speaking with veterans helped the team determine that a paid training program would make a more lasting impact.

“We can give people as much cannabis as we want,” she says, “but it doesn’t really help. What they wanted … what they came back with is, ‘We want to work.’”

Seth Smith, Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance’s vice president of communications, says that while his organization is often approached by companies wanting to hire or create internships for veterans, THC Design was the first to hire a dedicated staff member to oversee the program and really “put their money where their mouth was.”


Cannabis and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The next class of THC Design interns are slated to begin in January, says Chong, and she’s hoping that at least half the incoming veterans will be women. The company also hopes to eventually make its course information public so entities across the country can reproduce the program.

In the meantime, Zac Williams says he’s just happy to have found a place where he belongs.

“The cannabis industry is so welcoming and inviting, because it really is a bunch of rebels,” he said. “People that didn’t fit in anywhere else, who weren’t accepted by regular society.”

Hayley Fox's Bio Image

Hayley Fox

Hayley Fox is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She writes about cannabis legalization, news, crime, and culture in Southern California and beyond. Her work has been published online and in print for Leafly, Rolling Stone, Playboy, VICE, LA Weekly, and others.

View Hayley Fox's articles

  • Cure Eus

    Great piece on the veterans and the benefits of Cannabis. Great website too! Glad to see female cofounder recognized!!! Congratulations to all and thanks for sharing this piece with me!! Guess who sent this JB??

    • Grow Your Own

      Great Article & Great Opportunities for Vets in the Cannabis Industry.
      Medical Marijuana still needs to Lowered from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2(“Schedule II, which is a prescription drug as determined under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (21 USC 301 et seq.), may be dispensed without the written prescription of a practitioner”) on the Controlled Substances List & No More Piss Tests in the Workplace if your Medical Marijuana Card is Up to Date and not Expired. Cannabis needs to be on the Same Level as Alcohol with this Drug Free Workplace BS in Non Technical Fields. I live in a Cannabis Friendly State and I am still threatened with Job Termination for Failing the Whizz Quiz but I can go home & get Drunk every night if I please. Something is Not Right here. Just because Cannabis stays in your System Longer then Alcohol doesn’t mean I am Under the Influence and feeling it’s Effects On The Job.

    • Henri ShihTzu

      Love your name!

  • George SW

    This article is a joke, this guy isn’t helping anyone but himself, he got in trouble, now he hires 3 veterans and advertises it like crazy. Got to wonder how much leafly and this company’s “veterans” are getting paid to play the game. Shame on THC, shame on those selling out the Veteran name for their own benefit.

    • Rico San

      Bet this isn’t a joke to the veterans working at this grow now… bet it won’t be a joke to the next group of interns either.

      Why so much hate?

      What are you doing to help veterans?

      How many other companies are running programs like this?

      Do you even know anything about this program, did you read the article?

    • And to add, we have not advertised our program other than to post to Veteran groups, there are no ads, no billboards, nothing. Plus our program began in June and you will not find “advertising”. One question Mr. SW, what issue do you have with helping veterans? Are there rules that need to be followed?

      • Anna Obregon

        If and when San Antonio, Texas becomes a legal city/state, I would love to bring your program here. We have a lot of Veterans in the community who need help.
        Thank you for all you do and remember, there will always be naysayers, just keep pushin forward! Lets keep in touch.

        • Hello Anna! Yes, I would love to bring this to TX, and help create the program at a cultivation for free.

    • We did not “pay” Leafly for this article and the only pay we do give is the weekly paycheck to our veteran employees. I am sorry you feel this way about THC and our community outreach. We are doing what we can, however we can.

  • Will Cunningham

    I really just want to grow medicine for myself plus hopefully for a medicinal shop. I’m 35 with mild autism and a nerve disorder and cannabis is the only thing that helps but I don’t have any ways to get it plus even if I could I don’t have any money. I just want to grow but I can’t even start being in a bad state in the South. I want to get off disability and do something I enjoy but instead I’m on 5 prescriptions that don’t work but most addicted to and take just to avoid w/d symptoms. Cannabis fixes so much but I have to feel like no one really cares.

  • Leliu5th

    I think this is great for Veterans. I am a Vet with PTSD and cannabis is the only way I can sleep or function. All natural medication is better with out side affects that can make your life miserable. I would like to know more about how I can be employed in a non stressful is hell trying to get benefits from the VA!

  • Alex710420

    Awesome work THC Design. You guys do amazing things

  • Zachary Williams

    They don’t really “care” about vets. It’s was mostly a show. Coming from one of the guys the article is written about, this is just another company using vets as a publicity stunt, and I fell into it, but was dropped unceremoniously without the promises made by the owner….

    • Eric Pine

      Man, that sucks… This sounded like my dream job come true too! Alas, just another back turned on us. I think we, as vets, should combine our mindset, knowledge, integrity, hard work, attention to detail, and teamwork focus to launch the best, most efficient, money-making cannabis industry out there. We already know if we can will it, we can do it. Sweat is the cologne of success, and we’re not afraid to splash it on. Vets with like minds, unite! Before long, this will be a legal, wide-open industry. Somebody needs to run with it.

    • Eric Pine

      Just imagine taking this idea and having it be operated by actual veterans- Veterans who actually care about their trainees and employees? Veterans who are never unsure of their end goal? Veterans who will always “go the extra mile” to get the job done?
      The more I think about this, the more I feel like it’s a great idea that would be so much better off in the hands of veterans. Help a brother out, help yourself out too. Somebody please read this.