Jason Sweatt and Aaron Newsom, the co-founders of Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance (SCVA), never intended on becoming a licensed dispensary, but regulations in California forced their hand. The two men only wished to continue serving the area’s veteran community as they have since 2011, by giving away cannabis to veterans at their monthly meetings.
“We kept growing until finally we went to the county and said, ‘Hey, we need to continue our mission. Allow us to apply for a dispensary,’” Sweatt says. “They were very unwilling at first, but we kept at it and a year later they allowed us.”
In recognition of the organization’s work, tenacity and above-board practices, the local municipality provided the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance (SCVA) with a license to sell medical and recreational cannabis.
Veterans in the Industry
As Marijuana Venture celebrates its four-year anniversary with this issue, we profile nine veterans who have made their mark not only in their service to this great country, but also in the cannabis industry. It’s safe to say that not everybody in the marijuana business is a consumer. But stories like these highlight the outrageousness of Jeff Sessions’ infamous statement that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”
The following article is from the March 2018 issue of Marijuana Venture, © 2018 Marijuana Venture.
But the license also serves as a gateway for the business to keep supporting the veteran community in its own, unorthodox way.
Finding a Mission
A variety of studies in recent years have shown that veterans have a 50% higher suicide rate than non-vets. But the federal government continues to take a hardline stance against allowing veterans to use cannabis, despite numerous personal testimonies from former soldiers, evidence supporting the efficacy of medical marijuana and the waves of legalization that continues to sweep across North America.
So Sweatt and Newsom made the decision to step in and fill the void left by Veterans Affairs.
“We give away roughly two pounds a month,” Newsom says of the SCVA compassion program.
“We get 150 vets showing up to meetings once a month,” Sweatt adds. “We were giving a portion of what we grew back to the community. Then other cannabis businesses saw what we were doing and started donating to us and we would package it up in a gift bag and give it away.”
Since day one, the compassion program has been the driving force behind SCVA, its 15 employees and more than 800 members — all of which is the result of a chance encounter between its two founders.
“I went to Iraq from 2004 to 2005, the second year of the war,” says Sweatt, who spent 10 years in the Army before being honorably discharged as a staff sergeant in 2006. “It opened my eyes and I realized that it’s not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was a career guy up until that point.”
But readjusting to civilian life wasn’t easy. He took the pills the VA prescribed to help him cope until he was reintroduced to cannabis while studying at Hawaii Pacific University. The effects prompted him to start growing a few plants of his own and became one of the key reasons he chose to move to Santa Cruz, in lieu of his home state of Alabama.
“If you live in a state like Alabama and you tell the VA that you’re using cannabis, you might get turned in,” Sweatt says. “And if you’re a veteran and someone turns you in, you can lose your benefits. They can cut off your lifeline.”
Meanwhile, Newsom, who left Afghanistan in 2005 as a corporal in the Marine Corps, was experiencing similar troubles acclimating to life outside a war zone.
“I was trying to wrap my head around everything that went on — it was the most exciting and traumatic time in my life,” Newsom says. “It was really hard to kick the hyper vigilance of combat.”
Newsom went through the VA to find ways to cope and came away with numerous prescriptions, none of which gave him the quality of life he had before the military. It didn’t take long for Newsom to try cannabis to heal his trauma.
Cannabis provided such a relief for both men that they began cultivating the plant for other veterans they met at the VA and Veterans of Foreign Wars centers.
“I figured if this is helping me, then maybe it’s helping other vets,” Sweatt says. “I started going to vet meetings and helping guys out, giving them some medicine. That was the start of it, just giving back to the veteran community.”
Eventually, their paths crossed and the two men took the chance meeting as an opportunity to build something larger.
“We found a mission together,” Newsom says.
Veterans Helping Veterans
The two agreed to combine forces to double the number of veterans they could help. Together they started the SCVA compassion program by talking representatives from the local VFW center into letting them host monthly backyard meetings to give away cannabis.
“We built it (SCVA) from three guys to close to 800 veterans that are now part of our compassion program,” Newsom says.
As the community grew, Newsom and Sweatt began introducing new events for the group such as beach clean-ups, barbecues, toy drives, jam sessions and movie nights. But on their evenings off, Sweatt and Newsom would work quietly at the indoor grow, finding resolution to internal strife through gardening.
“After coming back from war and having to deal with all those issues and the things that happened over there, a lot of death and destruction, and to see something from seed to plant, it was like horticultural therapy to us,” Sweatt says.
With the growth of the organization, the demand for product increased. Numerous veterans who attended the program were introduced to the duo’s therapeutic gardening and “like clockwork” Newsom says they would see the same response they had in each member who tended to the plants.
“Now we’ve made it a mission to hire vets,” Sweatt says.
Sweatt says 12 of the 15 employees at SCVA are veterans, the majority of whom started as members of the company’s compassion program. Seth Smith, a former translator and cryptologist for the Navy, was one of them.
But Smith wasn’t attending the group for his own welfare. He was taking his stepfather, a Vietnam veteran, to the monthly meetings from Fresno. Smith’s personal introduction to cannabis came earlier. While recuperating from donating a kidney to his mother, friends and family came to his bedside with infused edibles to help ease the pain from the surgery. Smith says once he saw the scope and mission of the company, he knew he wanted to be a part of it.
“I started helping them out as much as I could from where I was in Los Angeles for about a year,” Smith says.
When Newsom and Sweatt talked with Smith about joining the group, he “leapt at the chance.”
Smith became instrumental in growing SCVA. His media skills brought news coverage, accolades from the city of Santa Cruz and most importantly, new members.
Today, SCVA is looking to expand its business into new areas by opening new dispensaries, but its mission remains much larger.
“Right now, we’re expanding, but once we get ahead of the expansion we can hopefully give away even more product to a bigger veteran community,” Newsom says. “Hopefully one day we can get the VA to pay for it, but right now it’s just one veteran helping another veteran.”