Operation EVAC: Educating Veterans About Cannabis
We produce 90 minute recurring support groups for military veterans at cannabis dispensaries. We’ve been operating since Memorial Day 2016 so we’re approaching our one year anniversary soon. Seibo: Can you give me a little bit about your own kind of military background? I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, mostly. So, for me as a non-combat veteran, there’s a certain sense of gap in my service. This serving veterans now gives me an opportunity to pursue fulfillment. Seibo: How did you get involved on the cannabis side of things? Ryan: After the military I had a corporate job for a while and then wasn’t really passionate about it so I did transition to the cannabis world with Berkeley Patients Group. After they were shut down I went to Harborside Health Center. Harborside Health Center is one of the biggest dispensaries based out of Oakland, California. Seibo: Ok, so you’re saying you started doing Operation EVAC out of Harborside initially, or? Ryan: The co-founder, Dave Wedding Dress, asked me if I’d be interested in starting a support group for veterans, and I was, and we started “Harborside Heroes”. I facilitated that for two and a half years monthly along along with Jane Leonard, who is a partner there that delivered an iRest Yoga Nidra meditation and now we’re in four dispensaries. The Apothecarium in the Castro, Releaf in Soma, Seven Stars in Richmond, and Magnolia in Oakland. That is an opportunity to really serve the community as a healer instead of formerly in a violent capacity. Seibo: Awesome and how do people hear about Operation EVAC and how many people typically show up to these events? Ryan: That’s a good question. Each site is unique. Each site, the culture of the veterans is slightly different. From the Castro, for example, where I have a strong LGBTQ veteran presence and then the Soma group where the biggest histories of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse. So each group is different. How they hear about it is social media, the dispensaries do a great job promoting and marketing, and also mental health professionals. I do have a pipeline from the VA mental health department that sends me, refers to me, veterans from their inpatient program. Seibo: It’s interesting and it’s a bit disappointing to think that the military doesn’t have something like this in house when it sounds like it has been very beneficial. Beneficial to the point where it was part of your job at Harborside, now you’re doing this full time. So as people come in, I mean, do they.. I have an understanding that it’s very varied but is there kind of like a desired outcome that people are looking for when they come to Operation EVAC? Ryan: That’s a really good question. I think veterans are different. It’s a diverse group and they all are looking for for different things. Some of them are interested in meditation for insomnia purposes. Some of them are in financial need where extra compassion and medicine is a great benefit. I think though, the one thing that all veterans have in common is that desire for the camaraderie piece. The fellowship opportunity to exchange laughs, sometimes exchange tears, with folks that understand exactly what you’ve been through. Recently I did go to a mindful resilience training for yoga instructors that really gave me a lot of extra tools for my toolbox. So it is unpredictable, these conversations. Seibo: So mindful resilience training. Can you just go into a little detail of what that was like? Ryan: It was really transformational and it helped give me a lot of insight into how to, you know, reach veterans better and how to hold the space and share the practice. That’s my responsibility. And this whole idea of inviting. Right? I’m inviting you to sit down. I’m inviting you to stay for the meditation. So there’s options. I think it comes from my experience as a patient consultant with some of the best dispensaries in the industry. That experience has enabled me to facilitate these conversations, inform about safe consumption practices, particularly with edibles that have the potential to be overwhelming. So yeah, I think a smart person can explain anything complex in simple terms that anybody can understand. Seibo: Do you have any really great success stories that you’d like to share about people that came in that, you know, really benefiting from attending your events? Ryan: I do have a couple. We’ll call him Tom. Tom was a civilian with childhood trauma. And I was forced to make a decision when he asked to join our veterans group. Was I going to make it exclusive to veterans only or inclusive and welcome civilians? And since I did make the decision to invite him to the group, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. This is a person who couldn’t make eye contact. He’d only look at his feet or at the sky or he’d look at you like you were a big bright light, like the sun, and just squint. Now after working with him for over three years, he’s in my Toastmaster’s group now. Seibo: Wow. Ryan: Right. He’s pursuing competent communication and just to witness that transformation has been incredible. Another short example, we’ll call him James from Tennessee. Left his family, left his community, to come to California to heal with this plant. Recently, he called me from the liquor store. [Deep breath] He called me from the liquor store and he told me that he was going to buy a Gatorade instead of buying beer that day. And for me, someone who has a history of excessive alcohol consumption, that was just a moment that I knew that what we’re doing here with Operation EVAC is the right path. Seibo: You know I really applaud you for being very inclusive because, I think like we were saying, you don’t need to see someone die to suffer from PTSD or you don’t need to have gone through the exact same thing to show empathy towards someone. And he showed that he wasn’t just going to these things every week to have a kumbaya session and get some topicals and stuff, but it’s really making actual, perceivable changes in their lives. Ryan: Absolutely. I’m glad you brought that up. Especially your own experience, because I believe our individual experiences shouldn’t be discounted. It’s not peanuts compared to what somebody else has done, it’s your experience and it’s valid and by your expressing this, it demonstrates vulnerability, right? And what that does is give the listener permission to express vulnerability also. And through that we create community. And so yeah, thank you for that. Thank you for expressing what your experiences are with trauma and that’s why I do welcome civilians into the group. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s 99.9% veterans and our discussions are veteran centric, but I believe it’s important for civilians to come in and listen to the stories that veterans have so that they understand the burdens of these wars that we’re going to. Also, I think it’s beneficial for veterans to be able to speak to civilians. Right? And not just among veterans but to be able to get the things off their chest with civilians also. That’s why we struggle to communicate in the workplace and things like that because we use different jargon, we use different dialects, essentially. Seibo: Well I think one of the things that you brought up that was really interesting to me was how you yourself are vulnerable. You talk about that you had issues with drinking as well and I think one of the things, especially in the age of the entrepreneur today, is that everyone always just wants to brag about what they are doing or what they’re starting, who’s involved with this and I think the truth of the matter is no one really gives a shit about all the great things you’ve done but people are really interesting about hearing the struggles that you’ve overcome and I really think this setup that you have where you’re giving them a safe space to be vulnerable, you’re being vulnerable yourself, you know really allows people to kind of just be real with each other. Ryan: I completely agree and I appreciate you acknowledging that. It’s authenticity, essentially. You know, when we’re business owners, we’re trying to project a certain image but when we’re sitting in a private and quiet space with our comrades. I think finding an authentic voice is what’s most important. And yes, I think vulnerability is that key. That key that unlocks healing, essentially.