Oct 27 2017 . 17 min read
Elevating the Conversation with Grow for Vets founder Roger Martin
Elevating the Conversation with Grow for Vets founder Roger Martin
Roger Martin started giving medical cannabis to vets in 2013 and in January 2014 made it official by establishing non-profit organization Grow for Vets. Although a U.S. Army veteran, Martin says the impetus for starting the charity was not his military service, but instead it was the healthcare options available to vets today. “It was only after meeting many young vets who were taking 20-25 different drugs a day because they were free and they couldn’t afford to buy cannabis that I decided to start Grow for Vets,” says Martin, who believes cannabis saved his life and helped him quit a habit that included180 milligrams of Oxycontin and 40 milligrams of Ambien a day.
In 2013, I was training my German Shepherd puppy at a training facility and I met a lot of young vets who were taking 20-25 different prescription drugs a day and several of them told me cannabis was the only thing that had ever helped them with chronic pain, PTSD, and a myriad of other medical issues. They could not afford to buy cannabis all the time because it was pretty expensive so they took the drugs the VA was shoving down their throats because they were free. It was an economic deal and I had given up on the government ever doing anything as I had spent months writing senators and congressmen, the VA, and anybody else I could think of. I never got a response so I gave up on the government doing anything and decided to take matters into my own hands. I realized what an obscene situation it was that these brave men and women were taking these dangerous and deadly drugs because they couldn’t afford any other alternative. That’s when I decided I was going to give free cannabis to all the veterans I could.
Initially we grew it. I didn’t ever do this with the idea of being a nonprofit organization. I really just thought we would grow some cannabis and it would kind of be a weekend hobby thing. I would get together with 20 vets in Colorado Springs and give them free cannabis and that would be it. It kinda worked like that for the first year but once I formalized it and Grow for Vets was born it just went viral very quickly after that. By May or June of 2014, we were no longer able to grow enough cannabis to give out. It wasn’t even a close call because it just exploded overnight. We decided we would stop doing that and rely on generous growers, both businesses and individuals, to help us out. In turn, we have been able to give away over $1.5 million dollars’ worth of free cannabis products to veterans in a little over 3-½ years, all thanks to the generosity of the people and companies who support us.
It was and still is to this day. It’s pretty much an on-the-job training kind of thing. I tried to educate myself as much as I could by reading and also talking to other people who have experience in running non-profits. Grow for Vets is the first organization to give free cannabis to vets. I always wanted to take the high road. I knew the only way we were going to get help for vets was to convince soccer moms that veterans deserved the right to choose whatever medical option they wanted to and they weren’t going to be impressed by marijuana, pot, ganja and all the other slang terms. That’s why we decided we were going to grow cannabis for veterans and that’s where the name came from.
My philosophy has changed recently about that. Our signature events, which is the free giveaway of cannabis, is probably what we are known for. And due to those events, I would find myself with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of product in my vehicle. In the last nine or ten months I started thinking about the people who were helping us out in other states and cities and they were younger vets with families. I decided the risk to them is not worth the reward. The only time we give away free medical cannabis products is at events that I am physically present at. So, if something were to go wrong, I am the one they are going to come to not the other people who are working the event.
It’s based on what we have on hand. That’s what dictates what we can give out. I hate to equate it with a food bank but it’s kinda the same type of system. What we are giving out today probably won’t be the same thing we are giving out next week. We don’t try and supply veterans with all the cannabis they are going to need for any given timeframe. Our whole point is education, we are primarily trying to educate veterans that there is a safe alternative to the deadly drug cocktails that they are using. We try to put a bunch of different types of cannabis products in the bags we give out. We will give them an edible, a topical. We try not to give away a lot of flower. Part of the reason for that is I am anti-smoking anything and also researchers universally agree that smoking cannabis is the least effective way to deliver it as a medicine. We are really trying to introduce veterans to safer delivery methods. That’s why we entered into an IPO with O.penVAPE and are using their cartridges; it’s much safer, it’s much more effective in terms of the actual delivery of the medicinal values of cannabis.
Not at this point, but I am sure that day will come the way people are signing up. It’s bound to happen at some point but all we can do is do the best we can. When we first decided to do this, I could have been an advocate or a lobbyist but I decided the way to do it was to be on the ground and help one vet at a time so that’s kind of our philosophy. We don’t try to supply vets with everything for a month. We want them to try some different things and then go to our sponsors and buy the other things that they need. It’s a difficult task because there are a lot of veterans out there who need help.
Absolutely, I had qualms about getting involved in even using cannabis myself. When it came to Grow for Vets we did our first big public event in Denver on Memorial Day in 2014. I had just a handful of volunteers and sponsors and to tell you the truth I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t going to get arrested. I had gone to the police department and told them what I was doing. I introduced myself, gave them my cell phone number and told them if they had any questions to let me know. From a practical standpoint, unless the police think you are doing something blatantly illegal like transporting cannabis products across state lines or something stupid like that, especially in a major city like Denver or Las Vegas, the police could care less about anything that has to do with cannabis being given to veterans. The other thing is I figured out early on that there isn’t any politician or law enforcement agency who wants to be seen as anti-veteran in this day and age, that would be the kiss of death. While I know we are not bulletproof, I know that does insulate us a little bit. But, yeah, it was certainly on my mind the whole time we were doing it. But it went well and we have never had a negative interaction with law enforcement. Typically, when I talk to them they tell me they are going to keep an extra patrol in the area of the hotel where we are having the event. Not because they are worried about anybody who is there or that anybody is consuming but because its advertised and they are worried about somebody trying to rip us off or something else. They have always been very, very receptive. It’s not that they endorse what I was doing, it’s really more a matter that in Las Vegas, Nevada the police have more important things to deal with then somebody who is giving free cannabis to veterans.
No. The most difficult part of this job is that a lot of times we meet veterans who don’t just have physical challenges but psychological challenges so that can be really tough. For instance, if you are dealing with someone today and everything is hunky-dory and then tomorrow you happened to hit them when they are having an issue with PTSD, it can be really tough. Until last year, I would say probably 80 or 90 percent of the vets we served were from the Iraq and the Afghanistan war era. It was only about a year-and-a-half ago that we really started drawing in older vets. Because, again, I think that has a lot to do with history too, so I have been pleased to see that. I think the biggest rise in numbers has been guys from the first Gulf War era, so guys that are like between 45 and 50. We are starting to really broaden out our membership base in that regard.
It can be difficult. I have always run Grow for Vets as a military operation, if you will. Finding people who will do what they tell you they are going to do, in my experience, is much more difficult than anything I have ever been involved in. Part of that goes back to this: In the beginning a lot of people who became involved in the legal cannabis business were criminals. And I don’t mean they were criminals because they illegally grew marijuana, I mean they were freaking criminals. I have met some that even though they have a license now to do what they used to do when it was illegal, that’s just not quite enough for them. They still have to engage in illegal activities which to me defies logic when you think about what it takes to get a license now. In my mind, these licenses are as valuable as a medical license and most doctors don’t risk their medical licenses.
I get wives who tell me all the time thank you for saving my husband’s life. I get kids who thank me for giving them back their daddy. But when they thank me, they are thanking Grow for Vets. I just happen to be the face of Grow for Vets but it’s the magic of this herb. As far as shifting the paradigm, that’s how you do it, you get people who bought into the Reefer Madness hysteria and you show them the real deal. This isn’t about gangs selling marijuana to kids in seventh grade. This is about the medicinal benefits of the plant that has been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes and only because of self-serving idiotic politicians that the paradigm shifted to the fact that it became viewed as a drug as dangerous as heroin and cocaine. As far as the VA and its caregivers, there’s been a big paradigm shift there too. When I first started Grow for Vets, I would hand my business card to one of my healthcare providers and I would tell them what I was doing and they would kind of nod their head and smile but they always slid the card back across the desk. They wouldn’t take my freakin’ card. After doing this about a one or one-and-a-half years, that changed. Not only did they take my card, they wanted to be educated. A couple people from the VA actually asked me to come in and make a presentation specifically about cannabis.
The fact of the matter is a lot of people have substituted cannabis for alcohol. That’s another issue we face daily. An unbelievable amount of veterans are alcoholics and nothing has changed from my day. If you go to a VFW club and say I’m having nightmares and night terrors, there’s going to be somebody there who is going to put their arm around you and say let’s go have a couple of beers. Their number one revenue stream in those kinds of clubs is alcohol. Many vets who come to us are hardcore alcoholics and that’s very, very difficult. The nice thing is I have seen a lot of veterans quit drinking because they substitute cannabis. That’s been one of the cooler things I have seen is veterans who aren’t just replacing drugs with cannabis, but also replacing alcohol with cannabis. Alcohol destroys lives and families and your body just like drugs do.
I had always pooed-pooed hemp. But about 18 months ago, a company approached us and they had a salve made strictly from hemp. One of our older vets who had been to our events and had severe shoulder pain, and the drugs weren’t helping him a heck of a lot, started using it. When he came to the next event a month later, he was ranting and raving about it and still does to this day and so that changed my attitude about hemp. So, we are preparing to launch a new project called Operation AirDrop and that program will allow us to ship free hemp oil-based products to veterans in all 50 states. I am excited about doing that because one of the most difficult parts of my job for the last four years has been getting letters and emails mostly from moms and wives begging me to help their son or daughter but they live in a state where cannabis isn’t legal. It’s been very frustrating to me not to be able to help those people at all. I’m really excited that soon we will be able to help veterans in all 50 states and once again we will be blazing the trail on that. We will be the first ones to ever do this.
Tens of thousands. In less than four years we have given thousands of veterans more than $1.5 million dollars in free cannabis products. How many vets we can help through Operation AirDrop will be dictated by the amount of donations we receive. Right now, the main thing we are raising money for is Operation AirDrop which is going to require us to get an industrial warehouse space where we can actually store the hemp-based CBD products.
The people who I have met who had stage 4 cancer and had their cancer not just go into remission, but it disappeared. And I have seen several of those now. We used to manufacture this high-grade tincture that was 28 percent THC and 20 percent CBD, it was very close to a 1:1 ratio. We used to give out bottles of it in 60-day supplies. At one event a lady who had stage 4 liver cancer came up to me and told me I had given her a bottle of the oil four months ago and it saved her life. She said, ‘My doctor is amazed that my cancer didn’t get worse, it went away. He had never seen that before and he was absolutely flabbergasted.’ That was my first experience with that.
It hasn’t been a success to me until the day comes when veterans have safe access to free medical cannabis the same way they have safe access to the free deadly drugs that are killing over 18,000 of us a year. And that day will come not just when the VA doctors can issue a recommendation for cannabis, that day will come when the VA pays for a veteran to go to a licensed dispensary every month and obtain whatever amount of cannabis they need for treatment of their medical conditions. That’s my goal and hopefully it will happen in my lifetime. I really do believe at some point it will happen.