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With 22 Military Veterans Killing Themselves Every Day, Cannabis University Trains Vets to Grow, Sell and Advocate for Pot Medicine

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Students chat next to a potted cannabis plant after a horticulture class at Oaksterdam Univeristy.
Photo Credit: April M. Short

 
 
 
 

Casey Robinson of Santa Cruz, Calif. served in the Marine Corps from March 2001 to March 2006, completing three tours in Iraq. He was injured in 2003, and again in 2005. After completing his term he was honorably discharged due to his injuries, then referred to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for treatment. That treatment involved a cocktail of different pharmaceutical drugs, which Robinson says made him feel unbearably numb, “like a zombie.”

That zombie effect, or inability to feel anything after using pharmaceutical drugs prescribed to veterans for psychological issues and pain, is  commonly reported, as is suicide, which is listed as a possible side effect on most of the drugs commonly prescribed through the VA to treat psychological symptoms in veterans.

Robinson was luckier than many vets, 22 of whom take their own lives every day in the U.S. according to a study released by the VA. He found relief in an alternative form of medicine, which more and more veterans are advocating for the right to consume: cannabis.

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 pot to treat their symptoms instead. He followed suit. Two years later he helped to form the local cooperative California Veterans Medicine, 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.

Medical cannabis is only legal in about half of all U.S. states, and even in those states cannabis use means risking one's VA benefits. (That is unless vets live in Colorado or Washington where the VA recently rescinded its strict ban on cannabis use.) If active members of the U.S. military are caught possessing even less than an ounce of cannabis, they risk dishonorable discharge forfeiture of all pay, and confinement for two years. Dishonorably discharged veterans often lose eligibility for VA benefits, including GI Bill and home loan guarantees. In addition, a veteran might be disqualified from federal, state and local government employment and lose the chance to obtain student aid and scholarships, and admission to higher education institutions can be impacted. It can also prevent them from obtaining licenses and certifications needed for jobs or being approved for business credit and loans. 

Casey Robinson’s friend, Donna Jacobs, has a vision she thinks could help remedy all of these issues and more: she's connecting veterans with the burgeoning cannabis industry, with the help of  the world’s first cannabis job training college, Oaksterdam University.

Jacobs, the mother of a soldier who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, has been advocating nationally for veteran access to cannabis for the last decade. She hosts a veterans information show on KSCO radio in Santa Cruz, and founded the local nonprofit Not This Time Vets in 2005 in hopes of helping new generations of veterans avoid the “inadequate care” she felt Vietnam war veterans received. She established a new branch of the organization in December 2012 called Veterans Growing Victory (VGV), focused on connecting vets with the cannabis and hemp industries.

“[VGV] is exactly what we’re trying to get out there—that [cannabis is] a good alternative medicine and that vets are the perfect candidates,” Robinson said. “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.”

As part of Veterans Growing Victory, Jacobs met with Dale Sky Jones, executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University, in the beginning of last year to discuss the connection between veterans’ issues and the medical cannabis industry. Soon after, Jones developed a new scholarship program called Freedom Fighters, which admits 12 veterans per year free of charge to Oaksterdam. The scholarship program began admitting military veterans last January, with Donna Jacobs as the veterans coordinator.

 
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