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Providing cannabis is just one of the many ways that Jason Hanley, owner of CARE Waialua, has set out to help veterans. In this interview, you will learn the amazing things going on at this cannabis farm in Hawaii.
For soldiers returning to society isn’t an easy transition, especially for those veterans who come back from war zones or are discharged from active duty. Our heroes sometimes suffer from poor mental health, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain, and various other health conditions. Veterans are turning to cannabis as a source for healing and relief. Providing cannabis is just one of the many ways that Jason Hanley, owner of CARE Waialua, has set out to help veterans. In this interview, you will learn the amazing things going on at this cannabis farm in Hawaii and how cannabis is being used to treat health concerns.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Jason Hanley: I am the owner of CARE Waialua, which is a patient based farm on the island of Oahu, Hawaii that focuses on giving people with their Hawaii 329 or cannabis cards a place to grow, a place to learn, a place to educate, and a place to get their compassionate medicine.
I was born in Battle Creek, Michigan. I’m what you would call an Air Force brat raised by Air Force parents my whole life. I ended up in the U.S. Army infantry for about three years in the late 1980s during the first Gulf War. I joined the military because I had lost my path in life and was getting in a lot of trouble. My parents were always at work so there wasn’t a lot of guidance from them which we all know is very important.
As soon as I was in the army for a couple of years, I realized what a broken system it was and I got an honorable discharge. I used my GI Bill for education, and went to college. I have a bachelor’s degree in Marine Science from the Richard Stockton State College in New Jersey.
I’ve been a US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist for 21 years, focusing on terrestrial biology more than marine biology. Invasive species is what my gig is. I’m involved with invasive species resource management for the Hawaii and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuge. I got into cannabis about the early 1990s when I was in college to provide cannabis to my friends.
Of course, growing up in a reefer world we were never taught the medicinal side of things. It was more like experimentation and trying to figure it all out. I moved to Hawaii with my current job as an invasive species biologist. We started CARE Waialua in 2015, as we we started seeing people in pain and having a need for tintures such as Rick Simpson oil (RSO). That’s where the whole journey started in a nutshell.
How did you get involved with cannabis and working with veterans?
Hanley: I was a veteran myself, and we just opened our farm up and started doing our thing. Pretty quickly, we started seeing veterans showing up at our door. I’m the owner and my co-owner, Lawrence Rich is also a veteran. So we are already veterans to begin with and it just started happening. Hawaii, I believe, if I’m not mistaken, has the largest capita of veterans per population in the US. We just opened our gates and we started seeing it happen right in front of us. Veterans coming left and right. Veterans dealing with all the normal stress and anxiety, which is all related to the diagnosis of PTSD. We were just seeing a lot of people just dealing with all these things.
A lot of the vets were coming back from Iraq and places like that. Just a lot of stress. What we saw in Hawaii, and I think it’s pretty much throughout the military world, is a lot of people when they’re released and get their honorable discharge from the military or dishonorable, whatever it may be, they are used to that stabilization of being paid and being fed and having a place to stay. The minute they’re out on their own, things become pretty hectic and so we see a lot of homeless vets under the age of 30. That’s what’s been really alarming.
There was a point in time where we were letting people stay with us and hang a hammock, and it was just too much for us. We didn’t have the programs in place to provide that socialized medicine to help and heal. This became more of a hindrance than a help.
We then relieved ourselves from that, and we continue to push forward trying to help vets in the way we can help them. The problem with Hawaii is there’s not a lot of housing for vets. The housing that they can stay at that’s affordable has a lot of drug problems with crystal meth or alcoholism.
There’s just so many factors pushing against them when vets break free from the military and start their own life and get on with it. There’s a lot of factors in place that are really setting them back in time, and we’ve seen it left and right. We’ve seen a few deaths on our farm from heroin and crystal meth. We’ve also seen suicide.
Every day, I believe there’s 22 vets that take their life every day of the week. We’re trying to help people as much as we can. We see a lot of vets that are just poor and struggling, so we try to get them some kind of medicine so that they can go on with their day and still remain productive.
It’s been a big problem. I’m a biologist and scientist at heart, so I just kind of pull the emotion out of it and just keep driving forward, which I think keeps me healthy and sane. A big problem in society is giving people a safe and positive environment where they can hang out and get their cannabis. Many people are struggling in Hawaii because of lack of jobs and housing. Homlessness and people not having a roof over their head is a huge problem here in paradise. We have to fix it.
What issues do you see with Veteran’s Affairs (VA) and how do they handle cannabis with veterans?
Hanley: Well, I would say getting the information out to the vets is more the problem than the VA supporting it. Obviously, the VA supports it as much as they can, but they’re guided by the federal government, which marijuana is a class I substance, so that’s a problem.
Here in Hawaii, the Veterans Administration is a really great administration, but they’re overwhelmed. So yes, I think you’ll have doctors nudging that way to go, 'hey, you can do this and you can do this with cannabis' and looking the other way.
But the resources just aren’t there for the doctors as well, trying to know where to send them. What we see is vets saying they heard, 'hey, CARE Waialua can help you' or something to that effect to help people. It has been word of mouth from us where we went from 20 patients in 2016 to more than 1000 now.
They just keep coming through our gate and we try to provide compassion and an ear to listen and a guide to help them as much as we possibly can with our resources.
Can you tell us about your 329 cannabis farm that you run? How are veterans able to grow their own medical cannabis?
Hanley: It’s a very easy program in the state of Hawaii. The medical cannabis bill was passed in the year 2000, the first state in the United States to pass the Medical Cannabis Bill. What the bill was put into play was that each person could go get their 329 card with a list of symptoms that are in place for receiving your card.
Once they get their 329 card, each person can grow up to 10 plants. Those 10 plants can be grown anywhere they choose to grow their plants. Obviously, our program has grown very fast because people need support on how to grow and cure, but don’t have a place to grow their plants, and that has always been the problem.
They had their 329 cards. They didn’t have a place to get medicine. Our dispensaries didn’t come online until 2016. That’s a 16-year lag of people having to go to the streets or go to the black market, whatever the case may be, safe or unsafe. In a lot of cases, it can be 50/50.
Hawaii’s had a cannabis black market for many years going back into the 1950s and 1960s. It’s been a very tolerated plant, but when it comes down to law enforcement and stuff like that, it’s been a little bit more difficult with dealing with all that’s going on right now. A lot of “Reefer Madness” minded people in the legislation that feel this drug, cannabis, will destroy their communities.
Basically, patients get their 329 card and they choose our grow site and then they have the capacity to come and grow their 10 plants with our cooperative. We have the resources there. We have the best information we feel like to grow plants, so they succeed.
We also have the ability to process flower and make different tinctures and edibles. There’s a lot going on in our farm that helps these vets out. It also gives them a tool to start educating themselves to, 'well, what is cannabis going to do for me? Is this really going to solve my problems or is it deeper than that?'
That’s kind of where we try to take things once we get established, is cannabis is not just the only solver of a lot of these things. There’s a lot of stuff that has to go on such as compassion, friendships, and a kind environment, especially for people that just got out of the military.
They deal with a lot of different stuff than a lot of us do. Highway road rage, people that might just be rude to them is a really high anxiety thing for them that they experience. Like I said earlier, homelessness, just a lot of things that are going on. We’ve just provided a farm for people to come to and sign a lease with us and find some normalcy.
They have a little 5x5 plot where they can grow their 10 plants. They’re just little plants enough to grow the medicine they need and we help them succeed.
Have you guys had to expand since you said that you had such a small number originally when you started and now there’s so many more?
Hanley: Yeah, we can hold a lot of tenants, a lot of patients because each patient doesn’t need 10 large plants. We have patients that only need a couple plants to keep up with their medicine for the month or the year. We’ve got quite a good program going on right now and have over a thousand 329 cards on our site that allows us to grow 10,000 plants if we needed to. We don’t have the resources to do that and we try to keep up with our patient base so it looks and feels right for politicians and law enforcement to understand what’s going on at our farm, and that we’re not part of the black market. We are taking care of people with compassion, and that’s where we started this.
How many veterans currently use the co-op to grow their medical cannabis?
Hanley: I would say we have about between 40% and 50% of veterans at our farm. I would say it’s about 40% veterans. And then we’ll see, probably from the age of 20 to 40, probably another 20% or 30%. And then the remaining 20% is people over the age of 60.
What does a typical day or week look like as a caregiver?
Hanley: All of our tenants, our patients, have the capacity to volunteer any day of the week they want. We’re very organized on the work that we do on the ground. Taking care of plants, mending soil, leafing plants, harvesting plants, all that stuff goes into play.
Then we have certain days of the week where they can come get their—what we call—medicine. It’s very organized and very by the book. For each plot they’re growing on, they pay what’s called a lease. That adds the value to the farm that allows us to be sustainable.
Everything, the flower they get is all related to the lease and the rent that they pay for their plants being on the farm.
How does cannabis fit in to your role as a caregiver?
Hanley: How does cannabis play a role? I think cannabis plays the largest role in life right now because it provides the opportunity for people who are sick or in need of pain management to use a more ethnobotanical stance of treatment than using a lot of the stuff they’d be prescribed at a hospital, such as opioids, psychedelics, and stuff of that nature.
I mean, what we really see happening a lot is people totally getting off of—for the most part—a lot of the pharmaceuticals they were using, whether they were anti-depressant drugs or anti-anxiety drugs. Some of those drugs work and have a place in our world. I wouldn’t say that all pharmaceuticals are bad because I’ve been involved with them myself, dealing with PTSD and stuff in my life.
But I do believe that they are overprescribed and very potent. When you prescribe something like an opioid for pain management over many months, that’s where you start to see the addiction happening really quick. It’s pretty simple because we know opium is a very addicting plant and oxycotin is the synthetic version.
One thing we have been seeing a lot is micro-dosing cannabis. Cannabis really started off as this, okay, let’s see what we can do for people with this plant. But as you know, cannabis can be very, very strong as well and put you in the wrong mindset or puts you in too high of a mindset.
We’ve really been working a lot in the micro-dosing for people who are new to it, just to kind of give them that little push of maybe sleep or maybe some euphoria in their minds, some happiness, a little bit of a blocker just to say, 'hey, oh, I feel good today, and I only took five milligrams or one milligram of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) with a certain terpene profile.'
That’s really exciting for us because like any other thing in the world, everything can be abused, whether it’s cannabis or whether it’s other things. We’re trying to find a happy place for people. People waking up and feeling normal again and feeling like they can tend to their day and not be maybe out of mind. You know what I mean?
That’s really what we’ve been working on really hard with low dosage edibles. It's a little bit tougher to do with flower.
Do the changing cannabis regulations in the US impact your role or access to cannabis?
Hanley: When they started medical cannabis in 2000, Hawaii didn’t get dispensaries until 2016. That’s a 16-year lag of people not being able to get medicine.
I would say that they are intolerant to cannabis when it comes to passing more broader laws to help people start farms like how we’re helping people get affordable medicine. Our dispensaries have been open since 2016 and they charge recreational prices, over $400 an ounce.
On a veteran income for someone who needs more than an ounce a month, that becomes unaffordable and unattainable. That’s why our farm has been doing so well because people can come here and get involved. If your going to put someone on a cannabis regiment then it has to affordable to the patient and offer a consistent supply of medicine.
Dispensaries also don’t provide the education, they don’t provide the ability to walk into a brick and mortar place and feel like you’re at home because all of our dispensaries are owned by business people and are backed by a lot of big cannabis.
When we try to come to the table with them, there’s no meet- ing place whatsoever to say, 'hey, you guys need help?' Also, I’d have to say it’s fair to say that when the state of Hawaii devel- oped the dispensary laws, we had a lot of great minds in place to build a horizontal market to help dispensaries get medicine and the Department of Narcotics swayed politicians against a horizontal market, back to the “Reefer Madness” mindset where they pretty much blocked it—the whole thing and made a vertical dispensary. High up in our politics, there’s still a lot of, I guess, you would call it “reefer madness” or not really believing in canna- bis as a medicine, but more of a problematic thing that causes crime and drug dependence in society.
That’s still heavy in our politics, we do have a lot of younger politicians coming up who are starting to understand what’s going on with cannabis, and that has really helped cannabis with moving forward with laws that support the communities of Hawaii. Even our program, CARE Waialua, we have started a new group called the Oahu Small Farms Cannabis Alliance, where we are bringing together small farms across Hawaii and people across Hawaii to lobby, build better laws, and put those better laws in place so we can succeed with building a healthy and thriving cannabis community, getting away from crime and chaos.
Our goal here is letting the state of Hawaii know that this is a great thing that’s about to happen in our society and it’s already happening and that they need to move a little bit quicker so they can build a great cannabis program. We don’t want what we already have in place, which is big businesses owning a handful of dispensaries that can’t provide medicine to people on an affordable basis.
What have you seen with your patients that go from using conventional treatment options for PTSD to medical cannabis?
Hanley: Euphoria is the first word that comes to mind. The vets are more stable and have homes, a roof over their head and are not homeless, 100% stability. I mean, they just come in being so thankful, they come in feeling better and happier. Veterans experience feeling like there’s actually people in their corner that care about them.
When you talk about a thousand patients on a site, you now get people talking to each other and sharing some stories and building a camaraderie with each other, which is what the military is used to. When they lose all that quality and just hit the streets, they’ve lost all their brothers and sisters.
This is an important thing of what we really love about CARE Waialua. We’ve provided this camaraderie so that when they come in, they see each other and they go, “hey”. We have events together where we get everybody together and meet people who they can call when they have problems.
With us, they have resources. That’s the most beautiful thing about co-operatives, there’s just so many resources that can be built into place that doesn’t tax each veteran, each individual to say, 'hey, I’ve got to worry about my plants or I’ve got to worry about getting there.' They don’t have to worry about those things. They get to say, 'hey, I’m going out to the farm today because this just makes me a better person. I’m losing weight, I’m getting in shape, I’m learning how to eat better. I’m talking with people who are healthy and happy and not going through the problems I have,' which is another issue—when the vets talk to each other, they’re all stressed out. They don’t have the capacity to say, 'hey, I need a healthy vet around me.' I think that is probably one of the largest benefits I’ve seen with a co-operative farm of our size. It’s just been—on any patient day when they come in to get medicine or any working day, you just see the euphoria.
I mean, the smile on their faces are like they have a second home to go to, it’s just astounding. It really is astounding and it makes you feel good as a person, as an owner of a business, or a co-operative that you are making changes.
I grew up as an Air Force brat, so I didn’t really get taught the beliefs of being part of society, giving back, helping people, trying to come up with better politics, and being a civil servant. I’ve been taught this all over again and it’s turned me into now a fighter, a lobbyist person that cares about people, a person that listens to people. It’s really done benefits for me as well as my farm staff. It’s changed us all as whole.
What resources do you provide to veterans and also others interested in the medical cannabis industry?
Hanley: We provide the skills to be able to grow your own plants, to understand what it takes to run a farm, and what it takes to manage people. I think our people that volunteer at our farm, all of them get a better understanding of that as far as moving forward, as far as being able to run their own cannabis business.
That’s what we put in people’s mind, but it’s a little bit difficult because there’s no resources here to do that. We are planning for that, and we are attempting to do that to provide jobs to lots of people, to provide greenhouses to lots of people so people can get their own businesses started.
I think the most important part is it just provides that sense of camaraderie, learning how to grow, how to use the proper medicine, how to co-operate with other people, how to have compassion for other people, even though you might be going through your own problems.
Don’t just write the whole world off and say 'this place sucks.' Look towards the future and go, 'hey, it doesn’t really suck, it’s just how you’re perceiving it.' We try to teach people, everything is what you make it inside yourself, but it’s easier said than done when you’re dealing with a lot of chronic problems, such as depression or even sadness.
Waking up every day with anxiety, those things are not easy, and I’ve dealt with those myself. Once you start to get a handle on those things and identify them, you don’t really need heavy psychology to do that, you just need people around you that are happy, understanding life, and understand what you’re going through.
I think that’s been the biggest plus for people coming on our farm is they get educated on how to grow and so if they end up doing something on their own, they won’t fail and they get educated. It’s moving. It was way worse 100 years ago.
Let’s move on and let’s keep it moving on. Let’s be positive people in society so we can help make a difference, also if you’re chronic and you’re unhappy and you’re trying to get through every day of life, we are understanding to that as well.
We understand that it’s really difficult to get through life and that you can’t change society. One thing is that you can’t expect people to volunteer in conservation if people don’t have a roof over their head or they’re living in poverty or they are homeless.
Working for a resource management facility, people who take care of land and take care of endangered species, there’s been a huge part of me that goes, 'Wait a minute, our societies aren’t healthy. So how do we get people out to care about our critters, our endangered species for a better lack of words if they’re not even healthy and happy?' That has really taken me back quite a few steps to try and fix other things.
What do you hope to see happen in the next 5 years regarding veterans and access to medical cannabis?
Hanley: My dream and my vision is to see thousands of registered cannabis businesses across Hawaii that can provide jobs to veterans, that can provide jobs to locals, and can invest in healthy communities. That is really my dream and my vision as we’re moving forward.
We’ve had politicians out to our farm, and they come there thinking, 'What’s this all about?' When they leave, they’re astounded. I think we have the ear of the politicians going on right now, which I’m very excited to say, 'Hey, we’re missing something here. This is actually a healthy thing and can help a lot of people so we can move forward starting to build healthier communities.' This has been one of the keys to my vision and the cog to transforming our society in Hawaii.