Cannabis saved these veterans’ lives. Now, they’re paying it forward.
Kevin Roelofs, a United States Military combat veteran, had been around marijuana his whole life, but until he returned from Iraq, he had never considered it anything other than recreational. Like many veterans, when Roelofs got back to America, he brought the war home with him. A relatively busy supermarket or clothing store was enough to trigger traumatic memories.
In Iraq, Roelofs was a gate guard, where he was regularly exposed to the sounds of human suffering. “The screams and cries of wounded people coming in” was the worst, he tells me. “Night after night that can really take a toll on a person.”
Unable to return to a normal life in America, Roelofs started smoking marijuana to cope with the stress and anxiety of his post-traumatic stress disorder. It helped a little, but normal activities still gave him flashbacks and an intense feeling of impending doom. It wasn’t until he came down with a ganglion cyst on his foot, which caused excruciating nerve pain, that he started to explore different kinds of marijuana and methods of consumption.
“I’d wake up in the middle of the night…almost in tears,” Roelofs recalls.
Roelofs had been offered pills before: Percocet for the pain and Seroquel to help him sleep. They worked, but they made him feel disconnected from the world around him. One night, he had enough.
“It led to me to go into the kitchen one day and make up this rudimentary [cannabis] extract. That was ten years ago, man, I haven’t had that pain in my foot since.” After that, Roelofs became obsessed with learning about cannabis—and sharing that knowledge with his fellow veterans. He learned about the plant’s chemistry, and the medicinal properties of individual cannabinoids, like CBD, which not only helped with his foot pain, but treated his PTSD. He learned about the “amino acid profile and the omega fat ratio” of the cannabis plant. He learned how to make extracts, and infuse cannabinoids with various foods. Then, he’d go on a Facebook forum for veterans and cannabis and share his discoveries.
One day, Roelofs got a friend invitation on Facebook from another Iraq veteran, Mikey Sorensen.
“I had noticed this guy…just slamming [people] with information that I had never heard of before,” Sorensen said. At the time, Sorensen, whose life had also been transformed by cannabis, was trying to break into the edible business. But Sorensen was more of a marketer than a scientist.
He decided that Roelofs, endlessly knowledgeable and already working on his own infusions, would make the ideal partner. Their first project together was making CBD-infused sugar, which Sorensen had already been trying to develop, unsuccessfully. “Whoever he had doing it was just not doing it right. It was absolutely disgusting,” laughed Roelofs. “Nobody wants green sugar.”
Roelofs helped Sorensen develop the sugar into a palatable product, and began giving it out to others in need. At the time, Sorensen’s cousin, Nestor Vinelli, also a veteran, was struggling with addiction and depression—partially the result of the opioid-centric prescribing habits of Veterans Affairs doctors.
Sorensen related to Vinelli’s problems. Before discovering cannabis, an addiction to pain medications and depression had led him to attempt suicide in 2012—and technically he succeeded, as he was briefly pronounced dead before being resuscitated.
Sorensen knew that Vinelli was on the verge of suicide himself and convinced him to try the cannabis sugar. “I started using [the sugar], and I was able to reduce the amount of pills I was taking,” Vinelli said. It wasn’t long before Vinelli too had completely weaned himself off of prescription pain medications. And like Roelofs and Sorensen, he wanted to pay it forward. The three veterans started working together.
Now, veterans Roelofs, Sorensen and Vinelli are launching a unique cannabis brand under the name West Indica, a play on the name of the East India Trade Company. The company aims to incorporate cannabinoids into regular foods, introducing them to peoples’ daily diets “no different than vitamins,” says Roelofs.
The ultimate goal is to create a number of cannabis-infused ingredients that can be used at home to, as Nestor puts it, “[Eat] yourself back to health.”
“Lets say you want to make a pasta,” says Sorensen. “You just throw some pasta sauce on there that’s already infused, or you throw some spices on there that are already infused and boom—now you’ve got infused pasta that you did your damn self.”
These infused foods aren’t just for veterans either. Roelofs, Sorensen and Nestor believe that cannabis foods—whether infused with CBD, THC or both—can help people lead healthier, happier lives.
So far, their enterprise has been funded out of pocket, and most of their products have been given away to friends, relatives or veterans who are looking to use cannabis as a treatment. But in mid-January, the West Indica team plans to orchestrate an official company launch. The aim is to charge just enough to cover raw materials and labor so that the focus continues to be people, not profits.
“It’s like Zig Zigler said,” Sorensen told me. “‘You can get everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.’ What better way to do that than build your community?”