Veterans Network Helps Ex-Military Grow Their Own Medical Marijuana

The Balanced Veterans Network is a nonprofit organization that aims to educate veterans and their families about alternative therapy options, including cannabis therapy. Founded by Air Force veteran Ron Millward in 2019, the nationwide organization recently teamed up with the Cannabis Creative Movement to create a wellness guide that details the health challenges veterans face and offers information on how to use complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) as a part of treatment. We spoke with Millward to find out more about the Balanced Veterans Network's mission and how cannabis therapy can help veterans readjust to civilian life.

Westword: What would you say is the overall goal of the Balanced Veterans Network?

Ron Millward: Really, to connect veterans and their families to all alternative therapies. We provide education, resources and empowerment on all alternative therapies, just to help veterans and their family members after getting out of the military to transition and really find balance in life.

What sort of resources do you offer?

We have different initiatives that are part of our organization. The way that we break it down is into four parts: One is called Mental Wellness, one is called Movement, one is called Operation 1620, and the other is Project Triangle. With each of those, there are different programs and opportunities for veterans to get connected to alternative therapies. We do weekly wellness classes, so we do introductions to yoga, breathing, meditation and fitness, and we also host peer-to-peer support groups. We have medical professionals that are part of our community that will help facilitate educational programming and opportunities for people to just learn more about some of these other modalities.

Can you tell us more about Operation 1620 and what that does?

Operation 1620 is our cannabis initiative, so it’s really all things cannabis and our most expansive program right now. We have gotten over 1,000 veterans their medical marijuana cards for free, and we have reimbursed state fees for those veterans, as well. We have equipped veterans with over $350,000 of medical devices, resources and grow equipment, and then we also have a mentorship program so a veteran can be paired directly with another veteran to learn how to cultivate their own cannabis. We really, truly believe that horticultural therapy is a huge healing aspect for folks, just to care for something outside of themselves. It’s been really cool to see.

So are you mostly operating in states that have at least legalized medical marijuana?

Yes. We do have a lot of veterans in a lot of states that have nothing, which is unfortunate, so we provide a lot of resources and try and connect them at least to CBD. But primarily, our major programs are in states with a medical program or completely recreational.

Why did the Balanced Veterans Network want to team up with the Cannabis Creative Movement to create this guide?

It has been really challenging for us to get the word out there. We’ve been sort of shadow-banned just because we talk about different alternative therapies, and so we really believe that by partnering with them, we were able to reach more veterans and their families to provide this resource. We want to be able to have an easy on-ramp and bridge the gap between the military and the care that folks are receiving outside of that. We just figured the more people that we can get this in front of, the better, and it’s just been amazing to see the support from the Cannabis Creative Movement.

The guide talks about how there are, proportionately, very few resources for the 90 percent of veterans who are not combat vets or special operators. Can you elaborate on that?

In the last five years, we’ve been extremely under-supported, but we’re watching a lot of other special operations organizations and folks with more combat be supported and uplifted in the community. But when you read the statistics, what’s really interesting is that the majority of veterans, close to 90 percent, are non-combat. So the majority of the American veterans did not deploy or see combat, but are still really dealing with a lot of the conditioning and problems that happen throughout their military service. While I’m combat myself and we have special operators that are a part of our organization and many combat veterans, we really want to focus and make sure that we are a place for all veterans. So we have a little tagline, “Unconventional healing for conventional forces,” and really, that just means that we want to make sure that our space and community is open to all people navigating any sort of trauma outside of the military.

What are some of the ways cannabis can potentially help veterans?

There is a lot of research and studies that have come out about some of the help around chronic pain and some of the mental ailments that we deal with, like PTSD and anxiety. So I believe that with the proper education around safe use, and really understanding the plant, it can be a very beneficial tool for people to incorporate into their lives to combat some of this. Unfortunately, in our community, there’s a lot of poly-pharmacy and over-prescribing of pharmaceuticals, and so we’ve seen a lot of people be able to utilize cannabis to transition off some of those pharmaceuticals and lean toward a more natural and holistic way of living.

What do you think is the biggest barrier preventing veterans from trying cannabis therapy?

We hear this a lot. There’s still such a stigma around utilizing cannabis, but then also, one of the other major concerns we hear are [about] Second Amendment rights. So we’ve got a lot of folks that are afraid to register in a legal program due to the federal ramifications of the Second Amendment with certain states, so that is always a concern. We get that question literally daily. So I think there’s just still this really big stigma, and then being afraid of potentially losing benefits. While the VA does recognize and say that we are able to utilize [cannabis], with the federal scheduling of this, there’s really no protection, and I believe with any sort of administration change, this could go backwards. So it’s important for us to continue to advocate and fight for better legislation around cannabis, and I think that would really help veterans feel a little more comfortable and safe utilizing the plant.

How is the Balanced Veterans Network helping to break the stigma around veterans’ mental health?

Balanced Veterans, we’re a lifestyle brand and a community, and everyone that is a part of our community — not everybody, but the majority — [has a] growth mindset, and really [is] moving toward living a better, more balanced life. What I think is so special is we’ve got many veterans that are utilizing their educational benefits, that are volunteering in our communities, really taking those stereotypes and stigmas of the broken-down, beaten-down veteran and changing that, and showing people that we all took an oath to protect and serve, and I believe that so many veterans still want to continue to serve their communities. So just really trying to show that even in conjunction with a lot of these other alternative therapies, there are people contributing to society and really making the world a better place.

Besides cannabis, what are some other examples of complementary and alternative medicines offered by the Balanced Veterans Network?

Cannabis is amazing, and it’s just one of the tools in our toolbox. We do introductory wellness classes in the areas of yoga, breathing, meditation and fitness. We believe that some of these other modalities can be really helpful in conjunction with or without cannabis. So for myself personally, I’ve noticed that breath work has been a really important tool, and something that has been received well with our community. So we provide sort of the introductory level and connect people directly to a practitioner or wellness provider to continue to go down that journey in a deeper way. But really making sure we’re giving that introductory level so that folks are able to try something different and see if it’s something they may benefit from.

Do you hope to offer veterans psychedelic-assisted therapy, as well?

We do. We have been able to connect quite a few veterans to psychedelic-assisted therapy. But at this time we aren’t currently funding anything, due to lack of funding. So our hope is to expand the program, to be able to provide more access to psychedelic-assisted therapy. We do have a psychiatrist on our team who is a trained psychedelic-assisted therapist, and so we’re working on developing some programs. We want to make sure we’re providing good parameters, safe access and education around the proper use of these modalities.

Have you had any pushback or reaction from the military?

Not necessarily. I don’t really know if we’re on the military’s radar, per se. But, we do have quite a few active-duty members that are a part of our community. Unfortunately, active-duty suicides are extremely high as well, and that’s not talked about a whole lot. I even know some folks who are helping connect active-duty members to ketamine-assisted psychotherapy. So there’s a lot that is changing and shifting right now, so I believe that sooner or later people want this information. Like I said, we’ve got active-duty folks that are eager to learn more for when they get out, but right now, we have not really had any sort of pushback or anything. A lot of the VAs welcome our education. They want us to be able to help and be able to provide these resources to folks, because they really can’t right now.

How can people support the Balanced Veterans Network in its ongoing mission to help veterans and their families?

While funding is always something that we’re looking for, more importantly, just sharing our message with somebody that may need it. It’s not just veterans. There are a lot of family members that are unsure of how to care for and support their veterans, so we make sure we’re providing a place for family members, as well, to have those resources and those conversations. So sharing our mission, donating, following us on social media or sharing some of the content we put out — any of that is very helpful for us.