Veterans line up to receive vouchers for medical marijuana

At 5 PM on the first Monday of every month, some 200 military veterans gather at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in downtown Santa Cruz. About three quarters of them are Baby Boomers – Vietnam-era vets now in their 70s — along with several remaining elders who served in World War II.

At these meetings, the former servicemen and women find comradery, community and a voucher for a free gift bag of medical marijuana – given away by Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance’s Veteran’s Compassion Program.

Leave no one behind

SCVA was established in 2010 by two veterans, Jason Sweatt and Aaron Newsom, who were disillusioned with the pharmaceutical-centric treatments they received through the VA. Growing and using cannabis, they found, was a healthier alternative for coping with the physical and mental stresses of post-military life.

The pair applied the rigor, integrity, discipline and attention to detail they had cultivated in the military to growing cannabis and their business. And it was the warrior ethos – to never leave a fallen comrade behind – that inspired them to launch their compassionate care initiative.

From the start, SCVA allocated a portion of its crop for free distribution to veterans – many of them low-income with service-related disabilities – who registered as members of their medical marijuana collective.

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Initially, Sweatt and Newsom delivered their medical marijuana care packages directly to the veterans’ homes. But when the business and the number of beneficiaries grew, the distribution program shifted to the VFW Hall.

Compassionate distribution of marijuana medicine

Now, SCVA gives away 3-4 pounds of cannabis flower in ¼ ounce packages every month. Other growers and manufacturers in the region often donate surplus or about-to-expire products that are also included in the compassion bags.

California has a long and venerated history of giving away medical marijuana to the ill and vulnerable. Marijuana activist Dennis Peron and his angel-in-arms, Brownie Mary, handed out pot to marginalized AIDs patients in the 1990s, leading up to the Compassionate Care Act that legalized cannabis for medical purposes. In Santa Cruz, the Wo/men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana has been providing medicine at low or no charge to the terminally ill since the early 1990s, and SCVA used their program as a model.

Helping the forgotten generation

William Horne is a fit and vital 77-year-old Vietnam-era veteran who regularly attends SCVA’s monthly meetings. After a toxic divorce left him depressed and anxiety-ridden, he decided to take responsibility for his health, and opened up to cannabis.

“Growing up, it was not my drug of choice.” But Horne openly acknowledges that this form of plant…