An Accidental Activist: From SNAFU to VETSGROW

Documentary filmmaker Matt Grimshaw recounts how he fell into the world of cannabis and veterans.
An Accidental Activist: From SNAFU to VETSGROW
Matt Grimshaw films tour of Dark Heart Nursery/ Courtesy of Matt Grimshaw

SNAFU, or situation normal: all fucked up, is a phrase I’ve known all my life. I don’t know if I learned it in childhood watching innumerable World War Two movie epics or during trips down to the local legion bars in London to hear tales of bravery from D-Day vets, Battle of Britain pilots, the Desert Rats, or even regular civilians who took part in the evacuation at Dunkirk, I’ve just never had cause to use it.

As a boy, I marveled at the stories of my heroes, sitting awestruck listening to firsthand accounts of their unimaginable feats of bravery, minus of course all the hard truths of war (I was a kid). To me, these people were gods among us mere mortals. They’d faced their fears and soldiered on. But back then I never knew what it must have cost them. As a result of those experiences I have always held veterans in the highest esteem and I love that the sentiment is obviously shared here. “Thank you for your service” can be heard from every corner of the nation on a daily basis and it’s obvious there’s a longstanding close relationship with the military, no doubt borne from the nation’s own struggle to exist against a bunch of people that probably sounded a lot like me…which proves that if nothing else, history has a wicked sense of irony. 

I’ve loved America since the moment I got off the plane on my first trip here in 2000 and so in the spring of 2017, after 14 years of living in the SF Bay Area, I realized that “here” felt more like home than London. Not only that but my accent had changed so much (I’m called Australian a lot) that I was in fact already Americanizing and so should finish what I started in moving here, and naturalize. Thusly I immersed myself in the history of the USA, warts and all. Being a documentary addict, this meant absorbing the entire Ken Burns library with a dash of Frank Capra’s WWII epics thrown in for good measure (old habits). In the meantime I continued my humble existence as a freelance creator for several channels on YouTube, one of which—the Monster Gardens channel—has a strong audience in the cannabis industry.

It was during research for a new cannabis grow show for them that I stumbled across the story that would change my life: a newspaper clipping from an unknown source that told the story of one journalist’s journey into the world of medical cannabis use amongst veterans. It began outlining cannabis use for pain, insomnia, and other medical uses that I was personally familiar with, but continued by talking about veterans smoking cannabis to prevent suicidal thoughts caused by PTSD.

Cue the record scratch in my head…wait…WHAT? This was the first time I’d heard of veteran suicide and I simply couldn’t believe that it wasn’t headline news everywhere. 

Matt Grimshaw (right) with VETSGROW/ Courtesy of Matt Grimshaw

It went on to describe how PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) was not uncommon in those who’ve served, especially combat troops, and that “pharmaceutical solutions” often made things worse. Taking this all in shook me to my very core. They were describing something I’d mistakenly thought was firmly in the “no shit Sherlock” category of “things that are not good ideas.” Exhibit A: Products that are clearly labelled “may cause suicidal thoughts” probably shouldn’t be prescribed to those suffering from suicidal thoughts.

Although I’m not a doctor, I am a product of the British schooling system, so I’ve been pre-programmed to trust doctors as authority figures (something I’m slowly unlearning here) but my ignorance shocked me as the opiates problem should be obvious to everyone. It’s REALLY weird that prescription medication is openly advertised on TV here. Weirder still for a drug company to instruct us to “ask your doctor.” Surely a doctor should be the one to tell you if you need medication? It’s not okay that words like “oxy” have become common in teens and the normalization of prescription medications as huge profit centers is now unquestionable.

The article continued to describe how many veterans had discovered cannabis as an alternative but that its continuing status as a Schedule 1 controlled substance at the federal level (one that’s as laughable as it is criminal) caused numerous issues from veterans being thrown off medical programs after testing positive, to those busted for medicating themselves through the illicit market.

Matt, Al & Aaron discussing the filming schedule at the start of the grow/ Courtesy of Matt Grimshaw

In legal states things weren’t much better. Legalization had brought massive cost hikes and local prohibitions had created cannabis deserts driving it out of the reach of many in need. As I read along, getting increasingly angry, I also felt a sense of immense guilt. How did I not know this? How does EVERY American not know this? As I read further, an idea began to form unbidden based around a simple premise: why doesn’t someone teach veterans to grow? Really, it was a moot point because my subconscious had already decided I was to be that “someone.” It was merely waiting for the rest of me to catch up.

As a kid I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up—it’s a revelation that took me 38 years, two divorces, moving halfway around the world, and a dead career to figure out, which is another story entirely. I fell into the world of video and found my passion by accident, just like I’d fallen into the 15-year career in science and technology publishing that preceded it, which is what brought me to the U.S., by the way.

I was one of those kids who just bounced around doing a bit of everything, meaning I’m not so much from the “school of hard knocks” as the “community college of crappy jobs.” The main difference between figuring out your passion as a kid, as opposed to at the unfashionable end of your thirties, is the sense of urgency. I knew I wanted to make my own documentaries from the moment I first tried editing footage—it was just a question of what to do first.

Filming the first footage: an interview with Monster Gardens COO Heather Lott/ Courtesy of Matt Grimshaw

When I made the veteran discoveries I’d been running the “Monster Gardens” channel for four years and I was developing my first solo project alongside a “grow your own cannabis” show idea for MG to celebrate the lifting of prohibition in California in 2018. My personal project was based on a daft idea to ride a motorbike all over America on a quest to discover the American identity by simply asking those I met, “What is ‘an American?'” I figured that between my confused accent, love of U.S. history, and status as a freshly minted American, mixed with what I’d find riding across America on an old motorbike, could make for good viewing. But that all came to a screeching halt when I reached the part of the veteran article that activated me like a light switch.

The suicide rate among Americas veteran population was 22 a day. (The number 22 per day has since been revised to 20 per day, according to the latest report; the old number included active service members and not just veterans.)

It was a bitter pill, meaning that every hour or so of every day, a veteran was taking their own life. The wide-eyed little boy in me died right then and there. What could be causing this? In a fit of incredulity I dived further and found fresh horrors: 25 percent of the U.S. homeless population were vets, 600,000 veterans were on prescribed medications, 60,000 were addicts. PTSD affected 20-35 percent of veterans, alcohol and substance abuse was common, and the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Government Agency set up after the Civil War to serve and support US veterans, was overloaded, underfunded, and rife with stories of neglect and even corruption.

The VA has seemingly been a political punching bag since its foundation, seen by most administrations as nothing more than a drain on the national budget. I’ve always had a different perspective: that veterans have already paid forward into the country through their service, giving part of themselves up through whatever actions undertaken during their tour of duty, for the good of all. I know it’s far more complicated than that, but my point is that most politicians have it backwards. We owe them, not the other way around. As I dug deeper I realized that everyone in government knows all this. To most of the vets I’ve talked to since learning it all, the VA is the physical embodiment of a SNAFU that’s not going to change fast enough to help many vets who desperately need it…however, for the first time in my life I had it in my power to do something about it.

The first VETSGROW harvest/ Courtesy of Matt Grimshaw

On November 22, 2017 I made the decision to do so on the very day I became a U.S. Citizen. My dreams of travel would have to wait; somehow I was going to make a documentary about helping vets. 

VETSGROW, the nine part docu-series about what happened next, starts pretty much where this article ends. I spent the next 15 months creating it but I’m still nowhere near done and if you watch it, you’ll see why. The next step is to take it national—which is what I’ll be writing about next time. 

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