Veterans of Foreign Wars Using Hemp to Feed and Educate

Chef Susie Jimenez will shows off her culinary skills for veterans later this week.
Chef Susie Jimenez will shows off her culinary skills for veterans later this week.
Courtesy of Susie Jimenez
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On Friday, March 29, hemp and CBD manufacturer Warfighter Hemp will host a free educational tasting event with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 of Denver, at the VFW's space in the Art District on Santa Fe. Attendees can learn about the benefits of hemp and CBD while also sampling a hemp-infused menu prepared by Aspen chef Susie Jimenez. Each dish will include hemp seeds or hemp oil, with courses ranging from hibiscus mojitos to spicy meatballs, as well as hemp-infused beer provided by New Belgium Brewing Company.

The Veteran-owned Warfighter will discuss hemp policy reform and the potential benefits of CBD while VFW Post 1 introduces CBD to its members as an alternative avenue of treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, opioid dependency and other physical and mental ailments affecting Colorado's veterans.

But in advance of Friday's feast (7 to 9 p.m. at VFW Post 1, 841 Santa Fe Drive; register here), Westword caught up with VFW Post 1 commander and executive director John Keene to discuss the event.

Westword: Tell us a little bit about the work VFW Post 1 does.

John Keene: The Veterans of Foreign Wars is the oldest veteran service organization in the country, and our group here in Denver, Post 1, actually predates the formation of the VFW. In 1899, the first Colorado volunteers, who had gone over to the Philippines to fight in the Spanish-American War, had come home — and much like veterans today, [they] felt like the government really wasn't treating them very well. So they started a fraternal organization amongst Colorado veterans, called Grand Army of the Philippines.

Then in, 1914, some similar groups from around the country decided to merge and become what is now the VFW. Because the Colorado branch had been meeting the longest and had the oldest records, when they decided to merge, they said Denver could be post one. So we are the very first in the world. If you come down to the Post, you can see the original charter from 1899 with all the founders' signatures.

What is VFW Post 1's goal in co-hosting this event with Warfighter Hemp?

What we're really trying to do is get in front of people and educate them. We're working with Native Roots and their new wellness company, Native Roots Wellness, which provides CBD-only products. They're going to be the ones providing the products and the education for the pop-up stores we're going to try to do. Starting in April, we're going to use our foot traffic from the art walks on the first and third Fridays to tell the story of CBD at these pop-ups in the post.

We also are trying to identify veterans who are success stories — people who've felt like they benefited from the use of CBD and are willing to tell their stories. One of our members is a professional photographer, and she wants to do portraits of them, which we will put in an art installation at Post 1 during our pop-up stores. So we're trying to integrate CBD awareness into our existing programs. Our event this Friday isn't directly a preview or promotion of these pop-ups, because they have different sponsors, but we're hoping that Warfighter Hemp will be able to become a third-party vendor of Native Roots. They have the same message.

Our short-term goal is to educate ourselves and our members, as well as the community at large, about the benefits and legality of CBD. That will help de-stigmatize it. Our long-term goal is to turn our pop-up stores into actual retail stores, where we could hire veterans to run the store, and give the community a safe place to buy their CBD products. We don't have those traditional revenue models, so this could potentially be a way to sustain the post as a nonprofit business. This tasting event is to break the ice, but eventually, if people take to it, we're open to possibly becoming a CBD retailer. That model could be duplicated in other VFWs. There are a ton of dispensaries out there, but very few that are exclusively CBD stores. We could be on that cutting edge — and it would be a place where people could hang out, and we could integrate our veterans' art into the stores. From that standpoint, it fits with what we do.

How has the opioid crisis affected veterans? Can CBD be part of the solution?

We wanted to focus on non-narcotic solutions, because there are a lot of veterans who are overprescribed opioid medications. Because of this, veterans often fall into opioid addiction, so we want to offer ways to get therapy outside of that by providing non-traditional treatments.

The common theme running through all of our programs was a wellness component. After the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that [legalized] hemp, and the explosion of CBD in the news and in public consciousness, we heard from some of our members that they actually found benefits in using CBD and have been able to get off some of the prescribed medications that they had been taking.

How is VFW Post 1 becoming more involved with CBD?

Being the first post, we kind of feel that it's our duty to lead the way. We've been featured in the Veteran Association's magazine, and we went to their national convention a few years ago; we're trying to let other posts know what we've done and how it's worked for us. If we're able to find some success with this, we would like to share that with other posts.

The vast majority of the posts aren't going to be able to open an art gallery like us, because we're unique in where we're located. But if the veteran community finds CBD to be useful, now that the Farm Bill has made it legal, this might be something that other posts do, as well — especially the posts that have canteens or kitchens. They could start selling some CBD products that veterans have found useful. We see ourselves possibly being at the forefront of offering this model to other posts.

What made VFW Post 1 want to partner with Warfighter Hemp for this event?

We were approached by Warfighter Hemp, which is a Colorado-based organization run by a former Marine. The connection seemed pretty obvious between his organization and our organization, because Warfighter is veteran-owned, and we're a veterans' organization; it allowed us to incorporate another aspect of wellness into what we're doing at Post 1. So we're lucky that Warfighter Hemp was able to find people to contribute donations to this event.

The musician performing, Barbara Sim, is a former Marine, and we have a great chef who donated her time as well as all the food and beverages that will contain CBD. The idea is to provide some alternatives to our members as far as wellness is concerned, so they can find some relief from whatever is bothering them, either physically or mentally.

I'm looking forward to learning as much on Friday as everyone else, because it's still new to me, too. We want to make our members aware of this alternative therapy, as well as the community at large.

What's the biggest obstacle getting in the way of the Department of Veterans Affairs supporting CBD use among veterans?

There's still a stigma because it's associated with the cannabis plant, and I think there are some CBD products out there that still do contain trace amounts of THC. So being able to get over the stigma and educate people  about the legality of it [are obstacles].

There are people in sensitive jobs that have drug tests, and they don't want to take a chance that there's a trace amount of THC that's going to get them in trouble. Events like the one on Friday, and also pop-up stores that we plan on having around our meetings on the first and third Fridays of the month, aim to educate the community about CBD so we can lower that stigma.

The founder of Warfighter Hemp, Steve Danyluk, has been working with the VA to get a study of medicinal hemp approved. Why do you think the Veterans' Association is so reluctant to research CBD and medicinal hemp?

Personally, I would chalk it up to large bureaucratic organizations being slow to react; that's my feeling. The stigma definitely plays a part, too. Outside of the Farm Bill that legalized hemp, cannabis is still prohibited at the national level. So again, educating people on the difference between cannabis and hemp is a huge hurdle.

How did you get Aspen celebrity chef Susie Jimenez on board to donate the extensive CBD-infused menu?

That was all Warfighter Hemp. They organized all the sponsors, like New Belgium Brewing Company, Susie, Barbara Sim. They actually brought all the players together; they just needed someplace to hold the event, and it seemed like Post 1 was the best fit based on our different wellness programs. Plus, the space is large and centrally located. It's been a really good partnership between everyone, and the sponsors are asking for donations for the post, and they're providing discounts to VFW members if they buy products. We really appreciate them.

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