The scent of marijuana wafted through the air across North Main Street Friday night.
The source? A gathering of veterans.
Swamp City Gallery Lounge hosted nearly 100 veterans in collaboration with Veterans Research Group for a Night of Fellowship. The venue, located at 716 N. Main St., was founded in 2016 with the goal of using art, music, craft beer and wine to promote further discussions about cannabinoids.
“The whole thing here is giving these guys a place to come and hang out,” Swamp City General Manager Tony Phillips said. “For at least a little while, they don’t have to look over their shoulders.”
The dozens of veterans who shuffled in and out throughout the evening shared camaraderie in the outdoor consumption lounge, an outdoor backyard space surrounded by a high privacy fence. Booths included everything from local vendors selling CBD hard candies to vertically integrated companies like Müv promoting their synthetic products.
Medical marijuana was legalized in Florida in 2014 under the Compassionate Use Act, which allowed a low-THC strain called Charlotte’s Web for use in epilepsy and cancer patients. In 2016, the act expanded to include the use of the low-THC strain for PTSD and other afflictions, opening the door for veterans to treat themselves with something more than opioid-based painkillers.
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a new wave of medical marijuana patients. About 170,000 new patients registered in Florida in 2020, bringing the total number of patients up to more than 500,000. The state also claims almost 2,500 licensed cannabis physicians and more than 330 dispensaries. More than 40% of military veterans who reported using cannabis classified their use as medical.
Even before Swamp City opened its first location in 2018, it had been putting on events with Weed for Warriors at pop-ups to educate the public on CBD and medical marijuana. The Nights of Fellowship continued as an extension of that, but the events fell off during the pandemic. Friday was the first event in two years.
Among the festivities were detailed demonstrations of how to turn herb into hash and, separately, herb into oil and butter. All the veterans at the event were medical marijuana patients. The intent of the night was not to host a raucous party where everyone was smoking indiscriminately, but to host veterans with a legal right to smoke safely and with friends, Phillips said.
Jimmy Johnston, president of the North Florida Chapter of Weed for Warriors, was a key organizer for the night. His organization collaborates with Veterans Research Group to encourage veterans to participate in research projects for alternative therapies for pain and post-traumatic stress disorder like medical marijuana.
“That way, we have that data that we can present to legislators and lawmakers to show them it’s affecting [veterans] positively,” Johnston said.
Johnston served in the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012. Although he saw relatively little combat, his friends were not so lucky. He said he uses medical marijuana to treat his epilepsy.
Branden Limprich and Nesky Hernandez are both veterans who use cannabis to cope with PTSD and pain issues. Limprich’s armored Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2012. He was prescribed 14 different pharmaceutical medications that he said could’ve deeply affected his mental state.
“I can easily say that cannabis saved my life, and it’s definitely the reason I’m still here today,” Limprich said.
Hernandez, a Purple Heart recipient, faced expulsion from the armed forces for using cannabis. He also expressed his distaste for painkillers.
“Introducing synthetics like that is unnatural,” Hernandez said. “It’s gonna be unbalanced.”
Shelby Roberts is a veteran-turned-consultant who said her mission is to guide veterans to the right medical marijuana strain and dosage. Her journey with medical marijuana began after she broke her hip twice before the age of 21.
“If you don’t have a backbone and your feelings get hurt easily, this industry is not for you,” Roberts said. “Get used to getting turned down a lot, but keep knocking on doors and you’ll meet the right person and change lives.”
The owner of Canny Granny Candies, Tamara McKelvey, whose husband is a veteran himself, sells CBD hard candies to veterans as a cheaper alternative to opioids. She also voiced discontent at the prospect of veterans needing to pay for a medical marijuana card.
“I don’t think any vet who served their country should have to pay the state for a license to smoke a plant,” McKelvey said. “But I’m glad I did because I saw my husband get relief.”