As an organization, Operation EVAC (Educating Veterans About Cannabis) is in its infancy, having just celebrated two years of community-building, educational services and compassionate care. But the core idea–that cannabis can play a meaningful role in healing our warriors–goes back way farther than that.
Cannabis and military life have been marching together longer than the buttoned-up armed services themselves would care to admit.
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“One of our troopers, we’ll call him Jonathan, his first experience with cannabis was the day he landed in Vietnam,” says Ryan Miller (below, foreground), an enthusiastic and empathetic Marine Corps veteran who co-founded and facilitates Operation Evac. “They were getting attacked their first day there, and his sergeant offered him a joint! He attributes it directly to his ability to survive the experience and come home safely.”Meeting by meeting, soldier by soldier, Operation EVAC is elevating the meaning of military medical marijuana, bringing veterans of all ages and experience types together for regular gatherings at a half-dozen California dispensaries. With Miller leading the charge, they practice forming positive narratives about their experiences, share compassionate (charitably donated) cannabis, and meditate.
Here, they embrace who they are and how they choose to lighten the things they carry.
“Everyone has seen that video of the troops in the bush passing around a shotgun,” Miller says. “That’s our heritage! That’s our culture!”
After the fighting, life goes on.
As the number of veterans coming to Operation Evac meetings on the regular rushes up on 100, Miller is in the process of onboarding new facilitators to help the growing number of service men and women whose needs and cannabis consumption preferences are as diverse as their service experiences.
“Cannabis helps so many different folks in so may different ways,” Miller says. “Military veterans are a cross-section; we have seniors, we have the youth, we have more recently discharged vets. They have a range of concerns. Some are more on the mental health side, anxiety depression, and some are more with pain. I have some folks fighting cancer.”Meetings are held weekly at dispensaries across San Francisco. Miller sees his organization fitting in alongside other health services like acupuncture and yoga seminars. “We strive to be the model for veteran services in the dispensary setting,” he says.
For the most part, Miller isn’t dealing with beginners; many Operation EVAC members are regulars.
“Most have some familiarity with cannabis. That’s why the education peices is so important to us. Its not a chow line, it’s not a soup kitchen. We share cannabis products and then we talk about safe consumption practices. … A lot of folks are coming in to make it affordable” compared with other drugs, Miller says–noting that the opiates and anti-depressants many of his vets are trying to leave behind are still free at any Veterans Administration hospital.
Cultivating richer post-military lives.
Last year Operation Evac and Los Angeles-based THC Design partnered on an internship program that sought to place veterans in the cannabis industry, particularly in cultivation. Not too long ago, the opportunity would’ve seemed absurd to Army veteran Stephen Passmore, who served in Iraq but had never tried cannabis in his life because he grew up believing in anti-drug messaging.Passmore was a senior in high school during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, an event that would lead him to enlist in the Army in 2004. After a year on the ground in Iraq, Passmore says he “brought some [of the war] home with me, and probably left a little bit of me on the scene.”
It wasn’t always evident. Passmore said that when he returned in 2007, he figured nothing was wrong with him other than being a little banged up–a broken collarbone and concussion left him with nerve damage in his arm. Over time he began to realize that warriors need time to heal, too, “to feel health and be whole again.”
When he went to the VA seeking help, they offered opiates for the pain and anti-psychotics for his emerging emotional issues.
Mom said no way.
It was Passmore’s conservative mother, a registered nurse and Seventh Day Adventist, who objected to that regimen outright. She told him to try seek something natural.
“The Bible says use herbs, dude,” he says, recalling how she got his mind untracked from his old way of looking at cannabis. “Use things of the earth to heal yourself!”Besides immediately sorting out his chronic insomnia right there on the first night, the experience opened his world.
“To be free, to not be locked inside of yourself … beacuse that what it feels like when you come home. Now, being in the community as a veteran, there are plenty of people who can relate. There are plenty of people who understand what it means to be traumatized. I didn’t have the emotional capacity at that time … cannabis allowed me to take a step back and be closer to the person that I felt I was before combat.”
Passmore was so enamored of the plant’s potential that he started seeking work in the cannabis industry, happening upon the THC Design internship that was part cultivation, part community outreach. Working with people ultimately won out, and Passmore was hired to work with the premium cultivator’s robust outreach and community-building programs.
Miller sees a military that embraces cannabis not just for veterans, but active-duty soldiers, too. For good reason.
“I was working with some of the smartest Marines out there [in high-speed tech],” Miller says. “Contrast all the dumb things we would do under the influence of alcohol. We have a culture of binge drinking.”Miller says short-term, he’s looking to establish veterans communities like Operation Evac for veterans all around the country, with active-duty access as a longer-term goal.
“People shouldn’t have to leave their families in other states to come to California to sleep in their cars to heal.”