Twenty22Many, a nonprofit suicide-prevention, PTSD-awareness and medical-cannabis organization for veterans, has a mission to give out 8,000 cannabis clones to as many US military veterans. Sadly, that figure is approximately the number of veterans who kill themselves in the United States over the course of a year. Most of these fatalities involve Vietnam War vets, who take their own lives more frequently than their younger peers.
Speaking to High Times, project founder Patrick Seifert points out that this general age group makes up the bulk of the crowd that comes to the Twenty22Many center—located alongside the Olympia outpost of Washington State’s annual marijuana festival, the Seattle Hempfest, in a building that used to house Seifert’s dispensary, Rainier Xpress. Within these walls, people can make CBD purchases, pick out hemp clothing and access a truly special program for cannabis-using veterans.
Seifert takes photos of the vets who come in for complimentary clones and posts them on social media to mark the occasion—and perhaps as a method of motivating the program participants’ peers. They are photographed in front of a United Stales flag flanked by framed collections of marijuana-themed patches: “Drug War Veteran” and “Narcotics Task Force” peek out among them, as well as an NBA-logo parody in which the initials have been swapped out for “THC.” The vets’ expressions run the gamut from startled to hopeful to giddy at the notion of taking home their own cannabis plant.
Seifert says that few turn down the request to be photographed for Twenty22Many’s Instagram account. That speaks volumes to how much they appreciate the Olympia advocates, especially when one considers that veterans across the country are often penalized for seeking out medical marijuana, despite the many benefits the plant offers to vets in particular.
The Department of Veteran Affairs has not made it easy for veterans to get access to cannabis. Veterans are not supposed to risk losing their VA health benefits due to marijuana usage. Residents of VA hospice facilities cannot consume marijuana on site, and VA doctors were instructed in a 2017 memo that although they could discuss marijuana usage with patients, they cannot make any official recommendation for a state’s medical-cannabis program.
“Unfortunately, the scene hasn’t changed much,” says Brad Burge, director of strategic communications for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which recently completed the first clinical trial to examine the effects of CBD and THC on veterans suffering from PTSD. “The VA continues to prohibit its health-care providers from recommending medical cannabis or helping veterans obtain it, despite numerous state laws acknowledging its efficacy.”
And though there are rules barring the removal of health benefits over cannabis use, a handful of recent cases have shown that the VA can and will penalize veterans for marijuana. In June, the VA denied a Massachusetts vet and his family a housing loan because it didn’t find his job “stable and reliable” enough. His profession? Assistant manager of a thriving cannabis dispensary. Another vet working in the cannabis industry, retired Army Maj. Tye Reedy, lost his pension when the VA took away his position as an academy liaison officer at the US Military Academy at West Point. The academy explained to Reedy that his job as director of operations services at Acreage Holdings “brings discredit upon the US Military Academy and the Army.”
“We are still a long way from medical cannabis being supported by the VA,” says Burge.
It makes you wonder why the Twenty22Many vets agree to pose for the camera at all. In some shots, the vets hold the crown of their new plants at face level, obscuring a mouth or a cheekbone with a winsome green leaf. Still, those who pose for the pics are risking something. But for many, the importance of accessing cannabis—and convincing other vets suffering from similar symptoms to try marijuana—outweigh the risks.
“Anecdotally, hundreds of veterans have publicly testified that cannabis access has saved their lives after being driven to near-suicide under a pharmaceutical load of dozens of pills a day,” Eric Goepel, CEO and founder of the Veterans Cannabis Coalition advocacy group, explained to Forbes. “Current research supports the potential efficacy of cannabis in dozens of different applications, all of which could have direct positive impacts on overall veteran health. Whether for pain relief, as a sleep aid, or for help in overcoming stress and anxiety, so many veterans find relief in cannabis because it provides an alternative way to manage their conditions far better than a slew of toxic pharmaceuticals.”
Seifert offers his story as an example. He started smoking marijuana in 10th grade when suffering from PTSD from sexual abuse. “Lo and behold, I probably was using it to help me with those feelings that I was having at such a young age,” he says. After high school, he served in the Marines and was stationed in Hawaii from 1992 to 1995, then came back home and worked private security jobs. Then he got into a car accident, which would lead to narcotic pain-pill prescriptions and eventually to addiction. “It was tough on me,” Seifert remembers. However, “Slowly but surely, I was able to get off of those, and start healing myself with cannabis.”
Years later, he opened his dispensary—or “safe access point,” as it’s called in Washington—in Olympia. “Within the first year, we started seeing something pretty marvelous happening,” Seifert says. “Veterans just coming [in]—pouring through our doors.” Any veteran could bring in a service photo, and Seifert would frame it and hang it on the dispensary’s “Wall of Fame.” Vets could also usually count on a free gram of marijuana every time they visited the shop.
In 2012, the VA published a suicide-data report that found 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the United States—that’s 8,000 lives lost each year. (There’s some debate about the exact number of veteran suicides, but the figures published by the VA are generally accepted.) The investigation studied death certificates from 1999 to 2011, and concluded that veterans made up 22 percent of self-inflicted deaths in the United States. That’s particularly troubling because they only made up 13 percent of US adults in 2012, according to that year’s Gallup poll.
When Seifert read about the study’s findings, he decided that his dispensary was not doing enough. A 2014 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 51 percent of veteran respondents knew a fellow vet who had taken their own life. Seifert was determined to do more to help his peers.
In the early days of Twenty22Many, the group would order pizza and talk about veterans’ health over slices and cups of coffee. How could they make more of a difference in getting vets access to cannabis? Their first goal, they decided, was getting PTSD on the list of Washington’s qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. The VA says that 15 percent of Vietnam vets, 12 percent of Gulf War vets, and 11 to 20 percent of vets from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have the condition, and that it can be caused by military sexual trauma as well.
The group did its research and found that no one had ever presented the addition of PTSD to Washington State’s list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana on a standalone State Senate bill. It had always been bogged down by a long list of other potential qualifying conditions that sent it back to committee again and again. Twenty22Many took advantage of its location in the state capital and presented its plan for a standalone PTSD bill to State Senator Steve Hobbs. Within days, Hobbs signed on as the legislation’s main sponsor and the bill passed the State Senate unanimously. Now a more seasoned lobbyist, Seifert thinks back to that early success in awe, especially as other senators followed up by adding traumatic brain injury (TBI), another condition that affects many veterans, to the list of qualifiers.
The early win energized the group, and soon the address that housed Rainier Xpress became the headquarters of Twenty22Many. Seifert says that central to the organization’s mission is educating veterans about home grows. “I don’t know if you’ve ever grown before,” he says. “But there’s something spiritual about growing your own medicine.”
Twenty22Many looks to build a seamless circle of support for vets to get started with their own plants. The group’s technique starts with the first roadblock: steep state authorization fees that can be daunting for vets with limited earnings. In 2019, Nancy Murphy, a nurse, stepped in to fill that void, holding $22 discount authorization days— the price drops to zero for vets that are homeless or otherwise financially compromised. In June, the organization held its fourth such event. “It’s such a blessing to finally see those guys coming out of the shadows,” says Seifert.
Once they are properly signed up, program participants receive clones from Twenty22Many, some of which are donated by fellow vets like Caleb Ray Neal. Participants can also help themselves to lights, fans, buckets and barrels that have also been donated. The group often holds free three-hour home-grow classes taught by expert growers Eric Rhetta and Alex Stubbs. There’s also a 24-hour cannabis-growing hotline for veterans. Additionally, the group has already assisted running a veteran help line for four years now. “If they need a sandwich, if they need help getting their DD214 [a form that documents military discharge], we don’t care, you can call for anything and we’ll listen,” says Seifert. “If we can drive to you, we’ll drive to you.”
Establishing a sense of camaraderie and purpose among veterans is at the heart of the group’s mission. In addition to encouraging participants to stay in touch by sharing photos of their cannabis crops, the organization also hosts stoner movie nights. “Some of these guys, you don’t know if they’re sitting at home alone on the side of their bed, or what they’re thinking,” says Seifert. “And we just don’t want to take that chance.”
Seifert knows that things are unlikely to change when it comes to the federal government’s policy on vets consuming cannabis. He is, however, heartened by the work of people like Mike Krawitz, a fellow vet who sits on the Twenty22Many board and has worked tirelessly alongside Americans for Safe Access and other activists to change the World Health Organization’s harsh scheduling of cannabis.
In the photos of the vets that Twenty22Many posts on social media, Seifert is often in the frame, an arm thrown around a flannel-clad shoulder or standing akimbo, thumbs in his front pockets. “There’s really nothing out there that’s doing more to fight veteran suicide than cannabis,” Seifert, who still signs his emails with “Semper Fidelis,” says softly. “So that’s why it’s so frustrating. Having it as a Schedule I drug is really hurting us.” While that is of course true, Twenty22Many has improved the lives of many veterans through both cannabis and camaraderie. Perhaps the biggest asset veterans have in the fight for safe access is each other.
Originally published in the September, 2019 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.
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