The United States is currently failing its veteran community on a shockingly large scale. It’s something that Sean Kiernan, himself a veteran who served in Panama in the early 1990s before working in finance, has committed his life to addressing. In particular, Kiernan is working hard through his involvement with Weed for Warriors, a non-profit group committed to exploring the growing anecdotal evidence that cannabis consumption can be used to effectively treat PTSD.
As part of our Future of Cannabis coverage, Equities.com sat down with Mr. Kiernan to discuss his personal story, why he understands the importance of these efforts as well as anyone, and why we as a nation owe it to our veterans to seriously consider any solution to this growing crisis that is showing real results.
EQ: Why don’t we start by having you tell us a little bit about your backstory?
Sean Kiernan: I grew up in Northridge, a suburb of Los Angeles. I joined the military out of high school because I wanted to get away and I wasn’t ready for college. I enlisted in 1989 and from 1990 to the end of 1993 I was an 11 Bravo 1P, which is basically a grunt willing to jump out of planes. I spent my time deployed overseas in Central America and received an honorable discharge at the end of 1993.
At the end of my tour I wanted out and I was ready to go to college. I ended up going to business school at UC Berkeley. I interned at Ernst and Young as an auditor and realized being an accountant seemed like torture so I shifted to the investment-banking route instead, working for JP Morgan (JPM) , Willow Creek Capital Management, and then Caxton Associates.
Towards the end of my time at Caxton Associates, the story of platoon mate Zak Hernandez was very much in the news and not for the right reasons.. I had lost two of my friends while with the 5Bn/87th Infantry, one in Bravo Company, while I was a SAW Gunner and the other one in Headquarters Company while I was the Battalion S2 (Battalion Intel) RTO. Headquarters Company was the more famous one, as it’s still in the news today.
Zak Hernandez was a Puerto Rican enlisted soldier who was our Headquarter Company RTO. He was shot 24 times by a Panamanian politician's son who fled to Cuba. From Cuba, he eventually came back to Panama, ran for government, and was elected to parliament, which means we couldn’t extradite him. Zak’s murder is one of the most unique I have ever heard as it literally has impacted every single President since George H.W. Bush and the conservatives tried to make it a campaign issue against President Obama in 2008 because his legal counsel represented Zak’s murderer here in the United States.
When I got out of the military, they never talked about PTSD. So as Zak’s story started gaining traction in the 2008 campaign, I started reliving the event and, worse, the gross injustice of what happen and how the US Government failed this wonderful patriot. With the modern internet and Wikileaks, it became apparent what had happened and what was going on and I was disgusted by our government’s selling an enlisted soldier’s memory down the river for a for profit/enterprise system. It affected me in major ways that I didn’t even realize were connected.
The nightmares, the agitation, difficulty in my relationship with my wife, and other issues all started presenting themselves in ways that led others to urge me to seek help. I went in and saw a private doctor in Darien, Connecticut. I didn’t even talk about the fact that I’m a veteran. No one really knew I was in the military, it’s just not something I paraded out. The next thing I know, I’m being diagnosed as bipolar inside of 20 minutes and going home with three medicines: Lithium, Trazodone, and Seroquel. These pharmaceuticals work different for everybody. There’s major side effects, including suicidal thoughts and feelings, but your doctors keep trying to find ones that work. You keep going down this road because they're doctors and you think they know better.
It started to turn really bad when I was given Lamictal. I felt suicidal within 72 hours after starting this medication; it was by far the worst reaction I’ve ever had to a medication. The thoughts, the urges, and the feelings that went through my mind threw me for a loop because I couldn’t reconcile why I felt this way as a person used to being in control. I hit rock bottom in 2011 with a suicide attempt that was highlighted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his documentary Weed 3. Around this time I’ve been through every psychiatric medicine. I found temporary relief with Ketamine, although I started abusing it and it’s not a medium-term solution let alone a long-term one. It’s not helping, and it's making it worse. I fell into this trap, this cycle, that I absolutely put at the feet of modern psychiatry, or as I call them drug pushers, and I attempted suicide.
In 2012, I spent $200,000 out of my own money treating my PTSD after my insurance plan dropped my family due to my PTSD, which then also prevented me from finding insurance because I now had a “preexisting condition.” My dad, who was a captain in the Army in Vietnam, urged me to go to the VA because they would help treat my issues without the need of spending my life savings. The reality is most Vets with means avoid the VA. The VA is where poor or lower middle class people go to get health care, which is reflective on why the VA is slow to reform: it treats the enlisted soldiers, seaman, air force, and marines, the ones who defend this country but still don’t have much of a voice in our society,.
So I find myself down at the La Jolla VA just to enroll and get my Veteran ID card, nothing more. Well, this was about a little over a month after Chris Kyle was shot so PTSD and veterans were much in the news. So Government did what I believe does best: they overreacted by putting a red flag on every vet, and as Vets, we naturally have a lot of them.
So as I sat in the reception area watching long lines of Veterans being frustrated and not being helped, I broke down and tears started streaming down my face. After, I was taken back and my blood was tested. Needless to say, the test came back with me positive Ketamine and the 30-something-year old Doctor asked if I wanted to be admitted for voluntary observation to which I replied, “why would I want to do that” to which she said, “voluntary observation is better than involuntarily being held on a 5150.”That’s what we have in California. It’s called 5150 and the vets are being locked up involuntarily left and right. They locked me up for the next 72 hours.
One thing that becomes immediately apparent to me is whatever we're doing for mental health issues at the VA in San Diego is not working. It’s not working at all. It was the most horrifying thing I experienced, the insane overmedication of our Veterans. There were vets taking over 20 pills a day of opiates, mood stabilizers, anti-depressives, basically every psychotrope known to man, sleeping pills and ADD meds to counter the the downers so one could function during the day. Their goal is to make perfect, little zombies who don’t do anything.
While I was there, a few people smuggled in cannabis oil and got everyone medicated for the next 48 hours. I am not joking when I say, the nurses thought everyone was doing so well and for once many of these Veterans felt well too and that did it for me. I promised to make a difference, a difference I failed to make for my friend Zak Hernandez, and I was not going to let another Vet suffer needlessly if I could do something about it.
So I guess you can say I ended up fighting for Veterans and their right to use cannabis without legal or social prejudice. I started using Cannabis exclusively, I was able to drop all the other medications to include the Ketamine and all other drugs to include the pharmaceuticals that I did not like and whose stated side effects include suicide. Should I have the freedom to choose.
EQ: Your story is, unfortunately, not uncommon, though, is it?
Sean Kiernan: We have a horrific epidemic in this country. They say you have 22 veteran suicides a day, that's over 8,000 vets a year. If those numbers are right, then veterans are 7% of the population but 20% of all suicides. But it's even worse than that because it’s based on a study the VA put out in 2012. They went to all 50 states and asked for suicide information on veterans. The problem with that is that the suicide information on veterans isn’t readily available or in some cases they don’t want to share it. Only 21 of the 50 states even contributed data, and of those that didn’t contribute data are California and Texas.
The real number for veterans committing suicide every day is probably, at a minimum, 58 to 60 if you do a straight extrapolation. But even there, there’s a case of this Veteran who drove his car into a concrete wall at 100 miles an hour while on psychiatric medications and was classified as a car crash and not a suicide. The statistics say there's something going on and no one wants to talk about it.
What’s going on, in my belief and other people's belief, is that psychiatric medicine is one step removed from frontal lobotomies, only they're doing it chemically. Any time you introduce those medicines into a brain they affect everyone different. If you look at the bell curve, the mean may be fine, but what about the tail end? What we're seeing is that the tail ends aren’t small numbers, because if that number is 58 vets a day committing suicide, we're losing over 20,000 veterans per year.
EQ: So at this point, there’s clearly an appallingly large problem that’s underreported and undertreated. There’s also a growing amount of anecdotal evidence supporting the conclusion that cannabis use can mitigate the symptoms of PTSD without all the side effects.
Sean Kiernan: The rest of the world is already there. We’re the ones who are blocked. We don’t have an honest debate about this issue. The reality is Canada gives 12 grams free to their veterans each month. Twelve grams you get free as a veteran. Israel is giving cannabis to their active duty soldiers. Italy is planting marijuana fields for their soldiers.
I worked on Wall Street. The pharmaceutical companies, the prison union companies, the private prisons they all don’t want cannabis to be recognized as an effective medical treatment. When I was at Caxton, we did a hostile takeover on Cornell Corrections and it was bought by the Geo Group, and we talked about how marijuana is the best customer supplier for private prisons. End of story. This was in the later part of the 2000’s.
Every psychiatric doctor makes his living one way: prescribing pills. You have the psychiatric community, the addiction community, the entire for prison industrial complex, and then the big one, the pharmaceutical industry all needing marijuana to be this horrible thing. That’s hard to overcome for people who need and use marijuana because they don’t have the resources to take on that power.. They can’t continue to spend the outrageous amounts of money on these pills. So what if, instead of getting 100 pills of Xanax a month and seeing my psychiatrist twice a month, I just grow my own weed?
I believe it was UC San Francisco that did a study on different drugs and produced an X-Y axis graph. On the bottom axis was deaths per thousand, and on the left axis was addiction rates. You have heroin in the upper right corner, which you would suspect, but right next to it is tobacco and alcohol. And cannabis is in the bottom left, meaning neither very addictive nor dangerous as measured by deaths. They had all these other meds in there that kill people and marijuana is the safest and least addictive of all, including the pharmaceuticals.
The bottom line is that other governments are giving the cannabis to their people, their veterans. We have an epidemic that is outrageous. That in and of itself is the reason that, if you're a veteran, you should have access to cannabis tomorrow and this government should pay for it. For all the fiscal hawks, it would be cheaper than paying Big Pharma!
EQ: The VA and the United States is doing a woefully inadequate job of addressing the PTSD epidemic, and it’s already coming at a great cost. It’s frustrating that you have a solution that appears to be a huge improvement from both a cost and a public health stand point and it’s getting stonewalled.
Sean Kiernan: For all the fiscal hawks, this would be cheaper than paying Big Pharma! The VA is already spending billions. The last time I looked, the last purchase of pharmaceuticals by the VA was $3.3 billion. You don’t think pharmaceutical companies have an interest in keeping that supply line going? They absolutely do, and they are advocates against marijuana as a result. They’re advocates against and the only advocates for are the people using it, who are least able to speak out in a country where money matters.
There is no logical scientific explanation for it. There is no logical public policy explanation for it. There is no moral explanation for it. In fact, the moral, scientific, and public policy reasons reasons are pro-cannabis. If we just saved 10% of those veterans committing suicide each year, that’s 2,000 people a year.
The reality is that cannabis costs money that a lot of these vets don’t have. If you have job, you get pre-tested and once you get in trouble with cannabis, you get probation. Once you’re on probation, you get urinalysis. We had a vet who got caught with a single joint. He gets 9 months of probation. In the third month, he gets busted for marijuana and gets thrown in jail. They don’t give him anything in there, including psych meds, and he hanged himself. We effectively killed someone over a joint. That is unbelievable.
We spent $70 billion a year on Marijuana eradication and criminalization in 2012 between state and local government and the cost of imprisoning people. It’s ridiculous, and the addiction rate is not going down. It’s the same that it has been for 30 years. More people die now from pharmaceutical drugs than all the illicit drugs combined and what do we have? The FDA is approving drugs faster and faster and everybody asks less questions.
We have people who insist on keeping marijuana on Schedule 1, and honestly, talking to these people, I don’t even know if they care because unfortunately we have a government that has nothing but self-interested people in there who don’t care about veterans at the end of the day. They don’t. There’s a lot of glad handing, but they don’t care.
EQ: Obviously, the biggest concern here is the human issue. However, I am also interested in your perspective about investing in the cannabis industry. You have a unique perspective as both a powerful advocate and a former investment banker.
Sean Kiernan: Right now, companies that are tangentially related to marijuana look good. What do I mean by that? Media companies, for example. I just got off a conference call with Royal Studios. They’re shooting a lot of media content regarding marijuana. Those are becoming really popular because people are saying “this is free speech, I can’t get in legal trouble for it.” So now it’s only a brand-risk judgment. So there are guys willing to throw $50,000 to $200,000 at these tangential ideas.
Then you have testing companies. People like CannaSafe in California. They’re providing a public service to ensure safe medicine for people. They’re doing what the government mandates in ensuring that medicine is healthy. That’s a pretty safe place to do business. While they handle marijuana, it's regulated, so that seems like a pretty safe play.
Now if you touch the plant as a grower or dispensary that is a totally different story. The problem is, until this thing is federally straightened out, you have real legal risk in terms of jail or asset forfeiture let alone the banking system being shutdown to what I call the frontlines of the industry. Without access to the banking system, it limits who can and would invest. It's going to be hard to get this industry into growth overdrive without banking, and I think that is by design. The prohibitionists created multiple lines of defense, which is why you hear about all these crazy regulations only related to cannabis. It’s just to buy time to rally against this budding movement.
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