One local woman’s mission to use marijuana and hemp to help returning veterans
There were approximately 21.5 million U.S. military veterans in 2011, including more than 13,000 living in Santa Cruz County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
This October, 9.7 percent of post-Sept. 11 veterans remained unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the rate of suicide among U.S. veterans has never been higher (the army reported 211 potential suicides by Sept. 27 this year).
Santa Cruz County resident of 38 years Donna Jacobs is sure that legalizing the cannabis and hemp industries and then opening them up to veterans would provide a new job market as well as easier access to what she calls a much-needed alternative form of medicine for returning soldiers.
“I know I’m coloring so far outside the box, as is anybody stepping up and saying, ‘We need to utilize cannabis and hemp for our veterans,’” says Jacobs. “My whole take is, you don’t have to support the war, but you have to support the warriors. We’re in a war, and we have veterans coming home right now, so what are we going to do for them?
“It is the responsibility of Americans—citizens, not just the government—to help our vets,” she adds.
Jacobs is the proud mother of a soldier who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She hosts a veterans information show on KSCO radio and has been actively involved in bringing local and national attention to veterans’ issues since 2005, when she founded the local nonprofit Not This Time Vets. She established the organization in hopes of helping new generations of veterans avoid the “inadequate care” she felt Vietnam War veterans received upon their return to the states.
Jacobs notes that many of the pharmaceutical drugs regularly prescribed to veterans list “suicide” as a possible side effect, and thinks these drugs are related to the high rate of suicide among U.S. veterans.
In response to the serious issues military veterans face when they return home, Jacobs established a new branch of Not This Time Vets in December 2012 titled Veterans Growing Victory (VGV). The program focuses on altering political policy around cannabis and hemp, as well as connecting U.S. military veterans with the cannabis and hemp industries.
One supporter of Jacobs’ new program is 31-year-old local war veteran Casey Robinson. Robinson served in the Marine Corps from March 2001 to March 2006, and did three tours in Iraq. He was injured in 2003, and again 2005. He completed his term and was honorably discharged due to his injuries, then referred to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for treatment. The VA treatment involved a number of pharmaceutical drugs, which Robinson says made him feel numb and “like a zombie.”
While participating in a cycling program through the VA, Robinson learned that many fellow cyclists had chosen to take themselves off of VA medications and use medicinal cannabis instead.
Robinson soon followed suit, and two years later he helped to form the local cooperative California Veterans Medicine (Cal Vet Meds), which provides medical marijuana at no cost to service-connected injured veterans. Cal Vet Meds’ activities are governed by the
State of California and operate in compliance with the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 (Prop. 215) and Senate Bill 420.
Robinson says Cal Vet Meds fully supports VGV.
“It is exactly what we’re trying to get out there—that [cannabis is] a good alternative medicine and that vets are the perfect candidates,” he says. “We don’t really want to get on the VA track. We don’t want to have all these crazy meds, and the option of [medical cannabis] … is freeing.”
Jacobs says one of VGV’s main goals is to respond to what she calls “ludicrous” federal government policies regarding the medicinal plant.
The use of cannabis, even for medical purposes sanctioned by states like California, is still illegal under federal law. The current U.S. military policy regarding cannabis is one of zero tolerance.
According to the U.S. military website, the maximum punishment for “wrongful use, possession, manufacture, or introduction of controlled substances,” including marijuana of more than 30 grams, means dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement of up to five years. Possession or use of less than 30 grams of marijuana can mean dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement of two years.
As part of VGV’s mission, Jacobs met in person with Santa Cruz’s congressman, Rep. Sam Farr (D-17th District), on Oct. 30 to discuss hemp and cannabis policies, especially relating to veterans.
“I think the voice of the people is a powerful policy directive and when they speak through the ballot box, government needs to pay attention,” Farr writes in an email to GT. “That doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to marijuana and I think that’s not right. In California, we have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, a measure I fully supported. So in Washington, I have pushed the federal government to recognize the states’ role in determining sound marijuana policy.”
Farr recently signed on as a sponsor of a new bipartisan bill known as the “Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act,” which would add a provision to the federal Controlled Substances Act expressly stating that state marijuana laws shall not be preempted by federal law.
“I am an original co-sponsor of the [bill] because the federal government has been unwilling to develop a reasonable approach to the varying state marijuana use laws,” Farr writes. “Here in California, we would prefer to work as a partner with the federal government to develop a solution to this problem. Unfortunately, the federal government has ignored the will of the people in our state, choosing instead to aggressively prosecute legal medicinal marijuana providers, making this legislation necessary.”
In addition to co-sponsoring the Respects States’ and Citizen’s Act, Farr authored the Truth in Trials Act, which would allow an individual who was legally using marijuana under state law to enter that fact into the record during a federal trial—something that is currently prevented by law.
“This highlights the need for the federal government to recognize the many variations in marijuana use laws and work with each state to prevent unnecessary prosecutions,” writes Farr.
In addition to speaking with lawmakers, Jacobs is beginning work with a long list of local and national cannabis and hemp organizations to garner support for VGV, as well as the Respect States’ and Citizens’ Rights Act, and a similar bill relating to hemp.
“Growing the cannabis and hemp industries will support not only our veterans but [also] our civilians,” says Jacobs, who believes that a U.S. hemp industry would create jobs not only in plant cultivation, but also in construction, transportation, and other fields.
Jacobs met with Dale Sky Jones, chancellor of Oakland’s cannabis industry training college, Oaksterdam University, several months ago to discuss the connection between veterans’ issues and the medical cannabis industry. In response, Jones developed a new scholarship program called the Freedom Fighters Scholarship, which will admit veterans free of charge to Oaksterdam. The scholarship is currently crowd-sourcing funds and will begin admitting military veterans this month. Jacobs will be the veterans coordinator for the scholarship program.
Jones says she named the scholarship fund Freedom Fighters because she thinks there is a “natural synergy” between veterans and the goals of Oaksterdam University.
“These men and women have been fighting for a purpose, this important meaning to life, democracy … and now that they’re back, they have nothing to fight for, and no one’s asking them to fight, either,” says Jones. “It’s really hard to lose your mission in life. You lose your direction a little bit too, and then you start to lose your gumption … and I think that may be one underlying cause of these suicides.”
Jones says she wants to train veterans to help her change the world while also teaching them to improve their quality of life.
“There are so many different aspects to what a veteran can learn here, as far as improving their quality of life, taking back control of their own medicine, taking control of their own symptoms, and also taking control of their own lives,” says Jones. “And then upon graduation from the basic program, [Jacobs’] organization is helping to assist in job placement, and is also working to change the laws.”
VGV is still in the planning and marketing stages. So far the new program has been focused on helping to establish the Freedom Fighters scholarship through Oaksterdam University, as well as garnering support from local and national programs and policy makers. Once the legality issues surrounding hemp and cannabis production are nullified, Jacobs says VGV will become an active resource for veterans and civilians to help grow the industry in this country.
“Once all the laws are straight, we’re thinking of doing veteran to veteran dispensaries and delivery services in the cannabis industry,” she says. “And then in the hemp industry it would open up doors from seed to harvest, from harvest to manufacturing, and then from manufacturing to distribution.”
PHOTO CREDIT: KEANA PARKER