Beyond the Battlefield: Growing Dank in the Desert

Photo by Dan Skye

After finishing his tour in Iraq, Ricardo Pereyda was redeployed to Germany and became aware of changes in his behavior.

Something was wrong. He was in a constant state of aggravation and couldn’t sleep. Negative thoughts filled his head.

Pereyda had served in the Military Police Corps of the US Army, part of a quick-reaction force that conducted IED sweeps, provided convoy security, and escorted VIPs and “high-value” individuals. “It was a rough deployment,” Pereyda admits. “In addition to combat, we lost an individual to a heart attack before we even got to the Iraq theater. And at the end of my tour, a 19-year-old private committed suicide in his bunk.”

Even before arriving in Iraq, Pereyda was already suffering a fair amount of anxiety. Back home in Tucson, Arizona, his brother had been shot, and he’d lost a close friend to a tragic accident. Once Pereyda was stationed in Germany, “I knew I really was off,” he says. At the Army hospital, he was told he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But he balked at the diagnosis.

“I was like, ‘No, no—not me! That’s a career-killer. I told you I couldn’t sleep!’ So they gave me a bunch of Valium, and that’s what I used the whole time I was in Germany.”

Forty strains are in production in the Desert Bloom gardens. (Photo by Dan Skye)
Forty strains are in production in the Desert Bloom gardens. (Photo by Dan Skye)

When he returned to the States, Pereyda was stationed at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona—and his mental state deteriorated further. He was surrounded by people who had ridden desks and dodged deployment. “I was angry,” he says, “and I was losing all military bearing.”

Pereyda was placed on the temporary-disability retirement list. For the next three years, he was treated for severe PTSD, undergoing myriad evaluations at a Veterans Administration facility where he was prescribed a host of pharmaceutical drugs—which only worsened his predicament.

“Whatever I said was bothering me, they had a pill for,” he recalls. “Amitriptyline, Xanax, Paxil … but worse was the PTSD diagnosis itself, which branded me as sick, a loser—damaged goods. I wandered in a haze until 2009.”

Pereyda received his honorable discharge that year after being labeled “undeployable.” Others certainly recognized his worsening state. Concerned with his increasingly erratic behavior, his family had actually performed an intervention prior to his discharge, which Pereyda describes as “the best thing that ever happened to me.”

He doesn’t categorically bash the VA, though. “Let me be clear: It was a safety net. I’m not sure I’d be here without the care I received. But I question the treatment. Doctors fill in boxes, obey protocols. I don’t think they have a real understanding of what vets have gone through. So their answer is always pills.”

After he separated from the service, Pereyda was determined to forge ahead. No longer required to follow the programs of treatment that Uncle Sam dictated, he made a concerted effort to wean himself off the prescription cocktail provided by the VA. He’d used cannabis in the past, but now he recognized it as medicine. He credits it with helping him move forward.

“It turned my life around, helping me to be in the present,” he says. “Cannabis facilitated my healing and allowed me to pursue my dreams.”

Pereyda now looks at 2009 as his pivotal year. He was introduced to Veterans Education Transition Services (VETS), an outstanding organization at the University of Arizona that offers the tools and assistance necessary for veterans to make the transition from service member to college student to employed graduate. VETS is managed by veterans, spouses, dependents and current service members, and it enabled Pereyda to find direction.

Aari Ruben, Desert bloom's owner, crossed paths with Pereyda and readily hired him. (Photo by Dan Skye)
Aari Ruben, Desert bloom’s owner, crossed paths with Pereyda and readily hired him. (Photo by Dan Skye)

Within six weeks, he enrolled in classes and began pursuing a degree in public policy and management. In time, he was assisting with VETS himself, advising others who were making the transition to civilian life. He also became a powerful advocate for public-health and cannabis-law reform, wholeheartedly committed to ending prohibition “so veterans, and all Americans who need it, can access cannabis without fear,” he says.

A Healing Center Blooms in Tucson

As thousands have discovered, cannabis forms community: Traveling in activist circles leads to connections. Aari Ruben opened the Desert Bloom dispensary in Tucson in 2013 with just three employees, himself included. Three years later, he supervises a staff of 55 who manage the dispensary and work in Desert Bloom’s sizable grow facility, which was built out only a year ago. It encompasses a 15,000-square-foot indoor operation and an acre of outdoor space, which is being converted from a garden to greenhouses in order to take advantage of Tucson’s abundant sun. An extraction lab is turning out concentrates, and an edibles kitchen is in the planning.

At the dispensary, a welcoming atmosphere greets patients. The expansive waiting room includes a picture window; behind it is the Desert Bloom “mother room,” which nurtures the genetics for the 40 strains currently in production. In the transaction room where the medicine is showcased and purchased, a bright, breezy atmosphere prevails, with the wall décor made up of cheery illustrations “so patients can have a lighthearted experience,” Ruben says.

“A lot of people can’t talk about cannabis at work or with colleagues,” he adds. “We’ve tried to create a comfortable space for them.” But if patients are homebound or otherwise unable to visit the dispensary, Desert Bloom provides delivery service.

Ruben has instituted a model of dealing with patients adapted from natural healing methods. To help identify appropriate strains, he’s trained the dispensary’s staff to pay attention to all of the variables that impact a person’s health: diet, exercise habits, past injuries and home life, too.

“We’ve gotten to know our patients,” Ruben says. “And I’ve learned a lot about cannabis therapeutics.”

He was a staunch advocate for adding PTSD to the list of conditions that qualify someone to use cannabis medicinally in Arizona, part of a bill that was passed in 2014. That’s how he and Ricardo Pereyda crossed paths. When the latter inquired about a job, Ruben readily hired him.

“It’s coming up on a year that I’ve been working in the grow,” Pereyda says happily. “It’s great—every day I wake up, and I’m eager to go to work. I ask myself, ‘Is this for real?’ I mean, I actually pay taxes to the government for working in a cannabis garden. How cool is that?”

A tiered veg room nurtures the future medicine of Arizona medical marijuana patients. (Photo by Dan Skye)
A tiered veg room nurtures the future medicine of Arizona medical marijuana patients. (Photo by Dan Skye)

He says that working in the cannabis industry has also allowed him to move beyond the stigma of PTSD. “You have to understand: using cannabis to treat PTSD is a double whammy. Employers have two reasons discriminate against you.”

No such problem in the cannabis industry—in fact, Desert Bloom’s master cultivator, Nico Mauceli, says that the veterans on staff have proved to be a valuable asset. “They understand responsibility,” Mauceli notes. “They’re disciplined, squared-away individuals who have a strong work ethic due to their military experiences. Ricardo has been outstanding.”

He’s also getting an education. Pereyda knows that, in an industry still laying its foundations, his training at Desert Bloom can only lead to more opportunities.

“Look, I’m really just an apprentice here,” he says. “I’m trying to pick up as much knowledge as I possibly can. There are people here who know so much—real experts. I’m just soaking it up. But cannabis has given me new direction, new motivation. I’m glad to be here.”

For Pereyda, being “here” means surviving.

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