An intimidating security guard stands outside the door of the Sanctuary in Santa Ana, one of the city's 14 unlicensed medical-marijuana dispensaries. It's 7:10 p.m. on Jan. 26, a winter moon is rising in the sky, and the temperature has sunk into the low 50s. Fluorescent lights flicker in the parking lot as people filter inside the building.
"This is our showroom," says Ryan (not his real name), the owner of the Sanctuary, pointing to a door on his left as he passes it. "The event is in our backroom."
Making a quick left and cutting through the waiting room, Ryan leads us to another door. We enter a cavernous, closed-down barroom that's been transformed into a man cave, complete with guys playing pool and a cardboard cutout of a life-sized, busty blonde wearing a Budweiser cheerleading outfit. A grayish-white haze hangs thickly from the ceiling, and the unmistakable, sour aroma of cannabis floods the room.
A group of men ranging in age from their early 20s to early 40s sit around a table in the center of the room. They are passing around several enormous blunts: cannabis wrapped in tobacco leaves—essentially weed cigars. To the left is a bar stocked with cookies, water and soda, but not a drop of alcohol. Vendors have lined up dab rigs and are showcasing their best waxes, shatters and rosins—a type of resin that uses a solventless, heat-and-pressure extraction process that squeezes resinous sap from nugs.
A 5-month-old Pitbull named Popeye wanders around the room, moseying from person to person, sniffing their toes in greeting.
"Welcome to Weed for Warriors," says a tall, muscular man with light hair. "My name is Kris Lewandowski, and I helped start the Orange County chapter."
Here in the ruins of what was once Orange County's diviest of dive bars, the Bobkin in Santa Ana, the Weed for Warriors Project is holding its first meetup. Nearly 40 veterans have traveled here from San Diego, Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Long Beach, Dana Point and everywhere in between.
Getting the chapter started was no easy task. According to Lewandowski, it took him close to 18 months to find a place large enough to host this size turnout and where members can medicate on-site. "There are literally no places in Orange County that are willing to accommodate us," says Lewandowski, a San Juan Capistrano resident, as he looks around the room at veterans laughing, medicating and hanging out. "It took me forever to find this place. [Ryan] apologized, saying that he wished the room was set up better, but honestly, this place is great. It's so nice compared to some of the places we stayed overseas. The most important thing is that he made it possible for all of us to come together."
Bringing veterans together and creating a place of community is the guiding mission of the Weed for Warriors Project. Kevin Richardson, a Marine Corps veteran, founded the project 10 years ago after leaving the military for a career in government contracting. "I was facing a lot of demons during that time," he says. "I was drinking a lot and basically having problems around my disabilities and PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. . . . There's a mindset that comes with how the military trains us, and it's really hard to adjust when you're no longer in a military environment because no one understands you. You go from having power to having none, and that makes you feel worthless and lonely."
To deal with chronic pain and depression, Richardson was taking a daily cocktail of Norcos and Percocets, courtesy of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In April 2014, he attempted suicide with pharmaceuticals and liquor. "I ended up taking around 75-plus pain killers," he says. "I don't know how much I drank, but I blew a 400 on the Breathalyzer test they gave me, which is really, really high. . . . I went off by myself, and I was going to let myself die."
A Marine friend he had met in a PTSD class happened to call him to see how he was doing. When Richardson answered the phone, his friend instantly knew he was in a bad place. "My voice was slurring and I told him what I'd done," he says. "He made me tell him where I was. . . . When he finally got to me, I was out."
Richardson's friend rushed him to the hospital. "I stayed in the ICU for four days. They forced me to go into the mental ward, even though I didn't want to, and I spent another couple of days in there. It was bad. They couldn't handle me—I was on steroids and weighed about 290 pounds. I was a total animal in there."
Growing up, Richardson used to smoke weed, but he'd gone years without touching the herb. After coming home from the psychiatric ward, however, the same veteran who saved his life re-acquainted him with cannabis. The Marine vet gave him a 100 milligram THC capsule and a 180 milligram cookie. "After years of taking nearly 20 Norcos a day, I was like, 'What is this tiny capsule and cookie going to do?'" Richardson had no idea how powerful the high would be: "280 milligrams isn't a great dosage for someone's first time," he recalls, laughing.
But Richardson stuck with it. The friend who saved his life introduced him to other veterans who used marijuana for PTSD and other disabilities. He credits it with nothing less than saving his life. He began to think about what a positive impact marijuana might have for other veterans if they could relax and medicate in the company of likeminded people.
Thus was born the idea for the Weed for Warriors Project.
"Having that camaraderie is everything," Richardson says. "Just from hanging out with other vets, I noticed I was becoming a better person and father. I wasn't as angry all the time anymore. . . . Vets have had to go through an entire mindset shift in order to be successful warriors and fight, and when you are plunged back into the civilian world after everything you've seen and been through, [it's] an alternate reality."
Richardson switched from using pills to microdosing with cannabis to treat his PTSD and other ailments, and he no longer feels numb all day. "Earlier this week, I rode on the carousel at Chuck E. Cheese with my 3-year-old son—and I'm 6-foot-5. I barely fit," says Richardson, chuckling. "It's fun for him and funny for me, and I don't care what anybody thinks. If I was still on pills, I probably would have been on the couch."
Launched in January 2015, Weed for Warriors is primarily a collaboration between three U.S. Marine veterans: Richardson; CEO Sean Kiernan; and Mark Carrillo, director of chapter development and operations. And the project has spread, with 13 chapters in California, plus one each in Florida, Tennessee, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Australia. "I cry at almost every meeting because I so understand what these vets feel," says Richardson. "I've been there. I had a guy cry to me, saying that he came out from Kentucky because he has no one, and Weed for Warriors gives him hope. I spoke to a Vietnam vet just the other day, and he told me going to our meetups makes him feel young again. It hurts to know vets are suffering, which is why we had to start Weed for Warriors."
But the project does more than just provide a place for vets to meet up and smoke together—it's also a sanctuary for veterans in serious trouble.
* * * * *
In June 2014, Lewandowski was living in Oklahoma, where, while awaiting official discharge from the military, he was required to teach field artillery classes. To treat a severe onset of PTSD, Lewandowski was cultivating six cannabis plants in his home, as it was the only medicine that didn't have adverse side effects for him.
But after an argument about having them in the house, his wife, Whitney, destroyed one of the plants. Lewandowski grabbed a knife, and Whitney fled with her kids to her neighbors' house. The cops arrived and discovered the plants. As the Weekly reported last year, police charged Lewandowski with cultivating marijuana, and he now faces a potential life sentence in an Oklahoma prison. (See Nick Schou's "PTSD-Stricken Marine Vet Faces Five Years in Oklahoma Prison for Growing Six Marijuana Plants," Sept. 7, 2016.)
Although Lewandowski and his wife had no history of domestic violence, the cops told Whitney that if she didn't press domestic-abuse charges against her husband, they'd send her to jail for the plants, too. To keep from losing custody of their children, Whitney followed their advice, but after 11 days, when child-welfare workers determined Lewandowski didn't pose a threat to his family, the couple reunited and haven't had an issue since.
The upside to this horrible incident is that it connected Lewandowski with the Weed for Warriors Project, who've been instrumental in his case. The group started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for his legal fees and are bringing national awareness to the case. Lewandowski has since become an activist for Weed for Warriors.
"Cannabis doesn't make me shit rainbows," Lewandowski says. "But it's given me back my life and the ability to work through my problems. I was barely holding on when I was on pharmaceuticals. Weed for Warriors is a reason to get out of the house. . . . They've also helped so much when it comes to the realm of my case. Without them, everything would be different."
Lewandowski is in a fascinating position. If he's found not guilty in Oklahoma—a state that maintains archaic cannabis-prohibition laws—Lewandowski could potentially alter the future of cannabis in the United States. "Kris facing life in prison for six marijuana plants is proof that there's a big problem with the government in this country," says Matthew Pappas, Orange County cannabis attorney assisting Lewandowski. "But his case could make a lot of changes nationwide if it goes well, especially in regard to the issues revolving around veterans and cannabis."
Samuel Grosso is a 30-year-old Marine Corps veteran who lives in Capistrano Beach. Originally from Washington, he joined the military after high school in August 2005. Following his discharge four years later, he has experienced overwhelming stress and anxiety, making going out and socializing extremely difficult. Before Orange County opened a chapter, Grosso traveled to Los Angeles, San Diego and all over Southern California to attend Weed for Warriors meetups. "Weed for Warriors has given me a community when there wasn't," says Grosso, whose hippie-like sartorial choices and eclectic energy makes him stand out among other veterans. "It's created medicine when I didn't have it, and it also gave me hope when there was none. It's so healing for me to connect with other veterans in a safe place to talk about life and things where no one is drunk. It's definitely a magical thing."
Although Grosso uses cannabis daily to maintain his overall mental health, he has discovered another profound plant medicine—psilocybin mushrooms—which has curbed his PTSD symptoms, particularly depression, and has essentially eliminated the suffocating anxiety that has stuck with him since combat. After coming back from his second deployment, Grosso's PTSD was so severe that he was seeing things. He couldn't go to work and was barely surviving each day. "I would have been dead a long time ago if it wasn't for mushrooms," he says. "I tripped multiple times in the Marine Corps, and it's honestly the only way I survived it."
Grosso's depression, pain and stress were debilitating, but he couldn't take anything that would show up on a urine test—including cannabis, which stays in your system for up to four weeks. Helpfully, psilocybin passes through your system in no more than three days. "The stress from war is so heavy," Grosso says. "It stays with you and consumes you. Using mushrooms has basically made the stress evaporate. They've helped me realize that I'm actually really lucky because I'm loved and I can love back, and that's powerful. They've helped me sort through the pain and the trauma because what you see in war—it's a mortal sin; it's the evilest shit. But they helped me realize everything is going to be okay."
Grosso knew going to the VA and taking a laundry list of meds every day wasn't going to end well, which is why he leans on cannabis and mushrooms to maintain his mental health and wellness. "I know the VA doesn't have my best interest or my health in mind. . . . The pharmaceuticals they want to put me on are such high risk compared to cannabis or mushrooms," he says.
The pain medications typically prescribed by VA doctors are not only addictive, but also act as Band-Aids that do nothing to cure the underlying trauma or ailment. According to data the Center for Investigative Reporting obtained in 2013 through a Freedom of Information Act request, the overprescription of four potent opiates—hydrocodone, oxycodone, methodone and morphine—surged 270 percent between 2001 and 2013, directly contributing to drug abuse, addiction and suicide among vets.
Both Richardson and Kiernan say they contemplated suicide after being prescribed a regimen of pharmaceuticals. "Being put on so many pills threw me for a loop," says Kiernan. "They made me suicidal. Cannabis made me a normal person again and helped me integrate back into society and be a normal part of the family. But the VA doesn't support cannabis use, so a lot of vets don't know there's an alternative."
According to the VA's Suicide Prevention Program's statistics, an average of 20 veterans died from suicide every day in 2014. More alarming is that veterans accounted for 18 percent of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults in 2014—even though veterans only constitute 8.5 percent of the total U.S. population.
"[The numbers] understate the extent of the crisis facing veterans because the official data is only being collected from 21 states," Richardson argues. "One-third of the data isn't being accounted for because the coroner didn't write down some suicides. For example, if someone crashes into another car or drives off the side of the road and dies, it's not counted as a suicide. It's ruled as an accident. But a guy in my unit drove his car off the side of the freeway and smashed into another car and died. . . . He did it on purpose, without a doubt."
The five-year plan to address this problem via cannabis, according to Richardson, breaks down into three phases. The first is to raise awareness of why Weed for Warriors exists, which is to stop the overmedication of veterans and lower the suicide rate. The second phase is to build out the chapters, and according to Richardson, that's currently where they are. The last phase is to infiltrate veterans into the cannabis industry so Weed for Warriors can bring in a constant revenue stream to support hospitals, living environments and build a Weed for Warriors headquarters. "Screw the VA," he says. "We'll employ vets, get them into grows, get them jobs and into businesses. We'll provide much better support than the VA."
Despite veterans being propped up as heroes by government officials, the media and Hollywood, the reality is that once they leave military service, many veterans feel all but abandoned when it comes to their material, medical and psychological needs. "We've treated veterans like shit for decades in this country," says Jennifer McGrath, a former Huntington Beach city attorney who now works with Pappas handling cannabis cases. "We're the ones who've put them through hell. I have such a big problem with that. They deserve so much more than wanting to kill themselves or being thrown in jail because we can't figure out the best way to take care of them."
Unfortunately, the future of regulated cannabis doesn't look so bright for veterans. Proposition 64 is designed to use cannabis as a way for the state to make money—not to ensure that everyone has access. "Veterans are going to be forced to go back to the black market or go back to using opiates because the new tax is going to make it far too expensive for most veterans," Kiernan says. "Obviously going to the black market is substantially better for their health, but it's going to come at a risk. It's going to get a lot of them in trouble with the law. Nobody thought about how this was going to affect us. Veterans are going to die because of this. Entanglements with police are going to happen, and people—veterans—are still going to go to jail for using and buying cannabis."
In Orange County, the new regulatory framework is also the basis for a lawsuit between the Measure BB-compliant dispensaries in Santa Ana and 14 rogue ones. Last month, the licensed facilities formed an alliance and sued the rogue medical-marijuana dispensaries in hopes of shutting them down for good. By doing that, however, Weed for Warriors Orange County will no longer have a place to hold meetups.
"It took Kris months to find a location in Orange County that worked," says Carillo, who helps to organize chapters on the national level. "But honestly, that's the hardest part about what we do—finding a consistent location is almost impossible. In San Jose, we've changed locations maybe 10 times."
Although smoking cannabis doesn't happen at every meeting, it's a lot more fun for vets when they can. "The only people really doing anything for vets are other vets," says Pappas. "No one else cares to help because it doesn't affect them if veterans suffer or don't have a place to go, and that's a massive problem."
* * * * *
At the Weed for Warriors meeting on Jan. 26, the cloud of smoke from nearly 40 medicating veterans is so thick that it's nearly impossible to see from one side of the old dive bar to the other. "We're having a dab contest," explains a pair of vendors sitting toward the back of the room. Popeye the Pitbull sits at the end of the table, observing. Lewandowski and Richardson recline in chairs next to each other, each ready to take the crown as the dab king.
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"Ready, set . . . dab!"
The vets surround Lewandowski and Richardson, who inhale cannabis concentrate. Richardson starts to cough profusely and stretches back in his chair, backing away from the rig in defeat.
"Ooohhhh," one of the vets yells to Richardson. "It's because you've been working on your abs and not your dabs."
Lewandowski breaks his smoking stride and begins to cough and laugh, as the entire room erupts in laughter. As another set of vets sit down for their turns to dab, the two men smile at each other and fist bump—a sign of their mutual respect, a gesture of their brotherhood.