A group of Marines served together in the poppy and hash-heavy region of southern Afghanistan and then got out of the Corps to start a cannabis company.
While that probably sounds like the idle fantasy of bored lance corporals stuck on post, the small team of special operations veterans behind Helmand Valley Growers Company made it a reality.
"We would joke about it," Bryan Buckley, a former Marine Raider and CEO of Helmand Valley Growers Company, told Task & Purpose. "I mean, we're in Helmand and we're dealing with poppy and we knew our partner nation forces, I mean, they would sometimes indulge, and this is kind of a joke. We just looked at like 'there's no way.' You just don't think about cannabis because urine tests and all that. It's just not even a factor."
"But, when you get out and you're dealing with some of the things that we've all had to deal with... we just said, 'Hey man, there is a definite need here, and I think we can provide a solution and make a difference,'" explained Buckley, who left the Marines in 2013 as a captain following multiple deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, and across western and northern Africa.
And so, in mid-2019, Buckley, along with other 1st Marine Raider Battalion members Matt Curran, and Andy Miears, founded their California-based company, which primarily makes cannabis distillates for use in vape cartridges.
“So really where Helmand Valley Growers Company the conception came from is we were Marine Raiders,” said Buckley, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star with "V" recipient. Prior to serving as a Raider, Buckley deployed twice to Iraq as a platoon commander with 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment and 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion.
“We served during some of our deployments in a place called Helmand province in Afghanistan," Buckley continued. "And within our unit, when you serve there, you become part of the Helmand Valley Gun Club and you would get an HVGC tattoo."
As for Curran, who enlisted out of high school and served 20 years in the Corps before leaving as a master gunnery sergeant, he initially made the move to special operations as a way to slow things down, he said.
During the second of two consecutive Iraq deployments, Curran says he found himself in the middle of firefight, as his son was born back home in the states.
"I was standing on a rooftop in a firefight on a sat phone and was able to hear my son cry for the first time," Curran told Task & Purpose. "So that was my experience with my boy being born. And I'll never forget that."
Afterward, he came home and met his four-month old son for the first time, and moved over to Marine Special Operations Command where he served with Special Missions Training Branch as instructor for about a year and a half.
"I decided that it's time to take an instructor role and slow down a little bit," Curran said.
He later transferred to 1st Raider Battalion, where he served with the other HVGC founders, deploying to Afghanistan several times, running disruption missions against the Taliban, and later overseeing special operations forces from Navy, Army, and allied forces.
Finding your sweet spot
Though Helmand Valley Growers Company, with their logo showing a pot leaf laid over the Marine Raider emblem, sells a product that gets you high, makes you giggly, and gives you the munchies, its founders are quick to argue that theirs isn't some half-baked venture just making money from pot sales.
"It's part of our military DNA, right?" said Curran, the company's chief operations officer. "We take a very professional approach to it. We're not a company that wants to go out and get high on the weekends. We're not that company. If you're looking for that, great, but we're not that company."
"There are a lot of fun people enjoying them on the recreational side," Buckley said of HVGC's cannabis products. "But we always want to kind of keep our focus on the veterans and what is going to be most impactful for them."
To that end, in conjunction with Battle Brothers Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Buckley, the company is self-funding research to study the effects of cannabis as a treatment for the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
"So after getting out of the service really start seeing what was going on with our veterans along with the opiate and the suicide epidemic that we're facing, and we're just kind of curious to see how can we help this?" Buckley said of their research plans.
When it launches, the 90-day study will be performed by Niamedic Healthcare & Research Services, and interested veterans will meet with medical staff for an initial visit and a review of their medical history, after which point, a treatment plan will be created, Buckley explained to Task & Purpose.
“The ideal veterans to bring in would be essentially a newbie who had never used cannabis before who might be interested in it, but doesn't really know what they're doing,” Buckley said.
“That way we can bring them in, they would have the whole physical done. They would meet with the medical research team. They would really design and provide them with a recommended customized treatment for them doing it, being microdosing. And really trying to kind of, almost guide them on to find their sweet spot so that the medicine can be most effective.”
Afghanimal, Purple Trainwreck, and Sour Diesel, oh my
In terms of products, their company offers six strains of cannabis distillates in all — two each of indica and sativa, and a pair of hybrids.
There’s the all-too-perfectly named Afghanimal, an herbal heavy-hitting indica that’s good for pain relief, relaxation, and rest; followed closely by Purple Trainwreck, another indica, which boasts an aroma of citrus, pine and lavender, which according to their site “appeases the consumer chasing a stimulating cerebral experience anchored in full physical relaxation.” For those in the market for a sativa, there’s Sour Diesel, which is best used for those seeking stress relief, and a “euphoric mental state.”
“All of our oil is high quality. It all comes in under stringent analysis. The terpenes are mixed onsite here under our supervision," Curran, said, referring to the aromatic oils that flavor different varieties of cannabis. "It goes out with a certificate of analysis. Quality is the number one thing for us. And we want to make sure that everyone who's enjoying the experience does so with the assurance that we're backing it 100%."
In addition to their existing vape cartridges, the company is launching a one-to-one ratio THC and CBD oil in July, and have plans to eventually release live resin, flower, and edibles.
Even as a growing number of veterans advocate for the use of cannabis as a treatment for a range of ailments, it remains illegal under federal law, and still faces stigma within the veterans community, especially in light of the severe punishments handed out for those who use it in uniform.
“There's definitely two different camps out there,” Curran told Task & Purpose. The people that are on board and the people that aren't. Right? And there's still the negative perception that just unfortunately, I think, is out there about cannabis in general.”
To get around that, HVGC takes a deliberate approach to informing prospective customers about their products, Curran said.
“So, we do take a very, very systematic education forward approach, because we do believe in the plant and the medicinal properties of the plant,” Curran said.
“We do want to educate about terpenes, about strain profiles about, ‘Hey, listen, you're experiencing anxiety and stress and sleep deprivation, and you're having problems with hunger because of anxiety and stress? There are the medicinal things within the plant that can help you relieve those symptoms.’”
“We found that approach has worked very well,” he continued. “We're very passionate about our mission. And I think once people realize that this isn't a fad. We're not just trying to seek out the next trendy thing that they jump on board very, very quickly.”