(Canna)Buttercream Frosting

Veterans Alliance for Holistic Alternatives

Gary Hess, founder and Executive Director of Veterans Alliance for Holistic Alternatives (VAHA), calls obstacles to accessing cannabis structural violence.


“It's not necessarily a verb, right? They're not committing violence when they block access to cannabis for veterans, but the policies that disallow access for certain communities … it’s killing members of these communities. It’s negligence. And it’s not just veterans, but I’m serving as a veteran voice and this is our story. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we lost 6,922 service members, and since the inception of both of those conflicts, we’ve lost 114,000 veterans to suicide.”


Hess served 11 years in the U.S. Marine Corps as both an enlisted Marine and an infantry officer. As a Mobile Assault Platoon Commander and Infantry Line Platoon Commander, he led troops through some of the heaviest fighting in Iraq. He walked through a landscape of suicide bombings and skirmishes, and when he returned from the war zones he fought in, he faced a new battle: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD.


“Trauma is not what happens to us—it’s what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness to what happened. There are painful emotions inside that we do not have a file folder for, and when we cannot process the emotions, that negative emotion bounces around and any time emotion is triggered—happy or sad—it leads to this default mode. It touches the pain points,” Hess said. “When you're affected with trauma, your amygdala within your limbic system gets stuck. That's your smoke detector. That's your primal brain that mobilizes your survival instinct even before it's a conscious thought. You are in a heightened state of alert at all times.”


Anxiety, anger, paranoia, intrusive thoughts, and difficulty sleeping are some of the most common symptoms associated with PTSD. And then there’s the terminal one—suicide—which brings us back to the numbers: 114,000 veterans have taken their own lives since the advent of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 22 veterans each day.


“22 veterans take their own lives every single day, and we’re still sitting here talking about whether or not our military veterans should be allowed access to cannabis,” he said.


When Hess returned from the military and his PTSD symptoms emerged, he went to a doctor. Like most veterans, he turned to the Veterans Administration (VA) for his medical care. As federal employees, VA staff members are prohibited from signing off on medical cannabis programs or recommendations. By default, they deal in the Western standard: pharmaceuticals. The doctor Hess saw prescribed a typical PTSD cocktail: something for focus, something for sleep, pills for pain, and a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI—the Prozac-model of antidepressant medication). Hess said the pills didn’t help. In fact, he said, they worsened his condition.


“[The pills make] you a master avoider, and that avoidance is what leads to the degradation of health over time. They don't facilitate the healing process. They avoid the healing process by numbing those symptoms—at best,” Hess said. The root causes of his trauma festered under the pharmaceutical bandage, and over time, he said he became addicted to the pills.


Hess says he now uses cannabis which he says allows him to explore his trauma and process it rather than anesthetize it—and he advocates for other veterans to have access to the plant. “I knew that I was not the only one,” he said referring to not only his trauma but the difficulty in treating it with traditional medications. “I knew that I was not going to bed the same. I was taking the pills and drinking every night before I went to bed. I literally had to lock every single door in my house, including closets and other bedrooms. It was obsessive. I was having issues. So I took the shiny brass off my shoulders, called my fellow Marines and said, ‘Hey, I'm struggling. I'm drinking. I can't figure it out. Who else is having these problems?’ Then I started digging into the science.”


The science led him to recovery, and recovery led him to advocacy.


Today, Hess devotes himself to helping veterans and other PTSD sufferers. Not only is he Executive Director of VAHA, but he serves as CEO of Teleleaf, an organization that connects people seeking relief through cannabis with medical professionals in 22 states where cannabis is legal.


“This is incredibly important to me and I want to make sure I get it across—I don't stand here for the veteran community and only the veteran community. I stand here for the American community,” Hess said. “I stand here for people like my mother and father. If you walk into their bathrooms and open their drawers, look next to their sinks, it is riddled with medication bottles. This is for them. This is for those who are lost in trauma-driven depression who can't find professionals to help them because the disparity between the need for mental health services and the capacity of professionals who are trained to assist them is growing so fast in this country that it’s a problem. It's a big problem, and it's not just a veteran problem. This is a human problem.”


This year, Curaleaf began a partnership with VAHA. The company will donate a portion of sales to the organization during the month of November, and according to Raheem Uqdah, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Curaleaf, this is just the start of a sustained relationship with the nonprofit.


“We always look for ways to go beyond writing checks. We write the checks—yes—but we also share our platform. We strive to amplify voices and work in concert with our partners to destigmatize cannabis and expand the conversation around the plant and the good that it can bring to communities and people’s individual lives.”


From November 1 through 15, Curaleaf locations across the U.S. will donate $1 from every sale of select items to VAHA.


These statements reflect this Mr. Hess’s experiences and opinions, may not be representative of the experiences of others, and are not a substitute for professional medical advice. Patients should consult with their physician first if considering medical marijuana to treat any physical or mental illness, condition, or disorder, or to use medical marijuana in lieu of any medication prescribed by a physician. Results may vary and those described here may not be representative of the experiences of others. Medical marijuana availability varies by state and, where available, is subject to individual state regulations and limits. For use by adults 21 years of age and older. Keep out of reach of children.