Photo courtesy of Grow for Vets

Media coverage from outside the cannabis industry often has a familiar ring: black market roots and quick money. But insiders know another side of cannabis, one that reflects the heart that drives many cultivators and industry influencers. Call it caring, community or compassion, but increasing numbers across the cannabis industry are finding creative ways to give back to those in need.

Easing Financial Burdens For Medical Patients

Several states and municipalities have started mandating financial assistance programs for medical marijuana patients in need, but the roots of those programs began with the cannabis community.

Inspired by a Berkeley Patients Group program in place since 1999, the Cannabis Compassion Program at Chicago’s Dispensary33 is one example of helping-hand programs spreading across the industry.

Grow for Vets at the Veterans Day Parade in Albany, Ore., in November 2015
Photo courtesy of Grow for Vets

“We’re really sympathetic to the financial hardship chronic illness creates for patients and the fact that medical marijuana is expensive and not covered by insurance,” D33 owner Zachary Zises explains. “It’s built into our mission to help those most needy.” The D33 program donates at least 1 percent of the dispensary’s gross sales to economically distressed patients. As sales grow, so does patient assistance.

Under the program, Dispensary33 patients with financial need can apply twice a year. From a pool of qualified applicants, typically 35 to 45 each period, a computer randomizer selects the final awardees. Support is based on dispensary sales for the previous six months and lasts for six months; awardees must wait a year before reapplying. Currently, 17 patients receive $240 per month in store credit to spend on whatever medication they choose.

“We wanted to have a significant impact for a small number of the most needy, rather than a small impact on a larger number of people,” Zises says. With the help of cultivator partners who give through monetary support and product rebates, the dispensary regularly exceeds its giving goal. “We regularly better that 1 percent, because of the generous cultivators who also see this as part of their mission,” he says.

Veteran participants of THC Design perusing a vegetation room.
Photo courtesy of THC Design

Making a Case for Philanthropy as Responsibility

Illinois-based Cresco Labs is one of the companies that contributes to Dispensary33’s program. The cannabis cultivating and manufacturing company also supports numerous non-cannabis charities. CEO and co-founder Charles Bachtell sees charitable opportunities as one of the reasons to be in the medical marijuana industry. “Philanthropy and the medical focus have to be part of why you’re doing this. ...” Bachtell says.

From a business and personal perspective, Bachtell feels cannabis compassion programs are critical. He points to today’s hyper-regulated medical marijuana markets, the high cost of entry and high production costs as producers develop new products and work toward economies of scale. He believes cultivators have a duty to ensure patients don’t bear the burden of that process. “These are true medical programs. These patients are seeking relief through any means necessary because of need. That patient base needs assistance. You can’t avoid, ignore or be agnostic of that, from a business or personal consciousness,” he says.

In Bachtell’s eyes, operating in the cannabis space comes with an obligation to help those in need, whether medical marijuana patients or the larger community. “If you’re not already participating or thinking about participation in some kind of hardship or give-back program, you’re probably not going to be successful. It must be part of your business model,” he says. “If you just think this is a slam dunk, no-brainer, green rush, you’re not going to succeed. You have to have the heart for the need.”

Veterans of the THC Design program touring a cultivation facility for the first time
Photo courtesy of THC Design

Reaching Veterans with Safe, Free Alternatives

Roger Martin’s understanding of how cannabis can help veterans comes from personal experience. As a veteran with a decade of OxyContin and Ambien dependency behind him, Martin credits cannabis with saving his life in 2010. Fueled by his own experience and veteran statistics on prescription drug deaths and suicides, Martin founded Grow for Vets U.S.A. The Las Vegas-based 501(c)19 tax-exempt nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing American veterans with free cannabis as a safe alternative to prescription medications.

The idea behind Grow for Vets formed a few years ago while Martin was attending training classes for a new puppy. “I was meeting vets taking 20 to 25 prescription drugs every day for PTSD and chronic pain, many on fixed budgets with kids,” Martin recalls. “The V.A. gave them pills for free, but [the] cannabis cost money. I decided that was an obscene deal.”

Working with a son with cultivation experience, Martin began holding meetings with veterans and giving away free marijuana in March 2013. Word spread, meetings grew, and Martin realized that he and his son could never grow enough cannabis to meet veterans’ needs, so Grow for Vets was born. Since its official launch on Jan. 1, 2014, the organization has served more than 50,000 veterans and given away more than $1.5 million in free cannabis products—almost exclusively product donations from cultivators, processors and dispensaries.

Martin isn’t slowing down. “More than 50 veterans die every day from overdosing on prescription meds or committing suicide,” he says. “I’ll keep doing this until vets have safe access to free cannabis as an alternative to the deadly drugs they get free from the V.A.” Grow for Vet’s next project is Operation AirDrop, a program designed to supply veterans in all 50 states with free hemp-based products.

Lori Martin (right) accompanied by a volunteer at the Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo in Dallas, Texas, in February 2016
Photo courtesy of Grow for Vets

Going Beyond Product to Production

Ryan Jennemann, founder of L.A.-based THC Design, wants everyone to know that the company’s new 12-week veterans paid internship and cultivation course was established in response to need—his own. Jennemann was struggling to find dependable, trustworthy, hardworking employees who could handle stress and appreciate the calm of the grow. “This is not a PR stunt or a charity handout,” he says. “I needed more people like that.”

The company’s first attempts to reach out to veterans’ groups generated little interest. Then a contact at the Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance realized the company was sincere about the contribution they felt veterans could bring. Almost overnight the program went from no applicants to dozens, which were filtered down to four final interns.

Photo courtesy of THC Designs

The first 12-week course ran August through October 2017. As of this writing (in late September 2017), two of the initial four are no longer interns—they were hired as full-time employees soon after the course began. In addition, three more vets have joined the two remaining interns. Some are transitioning from cultivation to other areas of the company based on their skills, talents and desires. Jennemann anticipates hiring as many as 40 more veterans over the next six to nine months.

“I expect a lot. These veterans have met and exceeded my expectations for work ethic, moral character, problem-solving ability and ability to handle stress,” Jennemann says. He describes the company’s veterans as a “breath of fresh air” that has increased the work ethic across the company, causing other employees to step up their game as well. THC’s next internship course is slated to begin January 2018, but interviewing and hiring is in full swing.

Photo courtesy of Grow for Vets

Though the program’s primary goal was to identify and hire full-time staff, future employment at THC Design isn’t required. Some interested vets want to learn the business and take their skills to other parts of the country. The way Jennemann sees it, having brand ambassadors across the United States isn’t a bad idea—and good people are good for the industry, wherever they choose to work.

As the cannabis industry continues to expand, the public learns more about commercial cannabis and the promises it holds. It also learns more about the people behind the scenes. Creative compassion programs like these and many others across the industry demonstrate that a heart for cannabis and a heart for caring and community can have a substantial impact.

Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer and former horticulture professional.