After Service, These Veterans Are Finding New Careers—in Cannabis

Under the bright light and cool air of one of the cultivation rooms, Navy veteran Zac Williams clutches a tall can of Monster energy drink as he walks between rows of flowering cannabis plants. Though it’s not yet noon, this is Williams’ second super-caffeinated beverage of the day; his schedule requires he leave his Inland Empire home by 4:30 a.m. to make the 2 ½ hour commute to THC Design’s lab.

Williams was released from the Navy last year. Stationed as a medic at posts across the world— Micronesia, Hawaii, the Middle East—he learned the fundamentals of laboratory health and safety. He worked a great deal in industrial hygiene compliance, becoming well-versed in processes such as water purification. Though he’s been working at THC Design’s lab only for about a month, he speaks about the science of cannabis with the familiarity of a long-time professional.

“Since I got out, I lost 50 pounds switching from alcohol to weed or cannabis.”

Zac Williams, Navy veteran

When Williams applied for the internship, THC Design saw his background and offered him a full-time job. Occupational health and safety are expected to be huge issues for California’s cannabis industry when the adult-use market goes legal next year, Williams says, noting that he’s already fluent in standards like federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lab requirements, which dictate things such as where saftey placards and eye-washing stations need to be located.

Though Williams brought a bounty of knowledge from his time in the service, he’s also been learning as he goes. His Navy background, he says, helped prepare him to dive right in.

“Ninety percent of all military knowledge is on-the-job training, so we’re accustomed to not necessarily reading the books but listening to our superiors,” he said. “See one, do one, teach one—and we’re ready to go.”

Program participant Brandon Waller in THC Design’s reservoir room. (Alexander Drecun for Leafly)

As a salaried employee, Williams doesn’t get paid for working overtime. Yet he still clocks plenty of 12-hour days, he says, in large part because this is the first time he’s ever really looked forward to going to work.

In addition to his full-time job at THC, Williams is going to school for chemistry at National University in Ontario, CA, and hopes to attend UC Irvine for his master’s degree.

Like many in the cannabis biz, Williams also regularly consumes the product, both for medical needs and recreation. When he was in the military, he drank heavily and gorged on prescription pain medications and muscle relaxers—a habit he couldn’t afford once he returned to civilian life, he says.

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He’s not alone. The fallout from prescription pills, such as liver damage, addiction, and overdose, has hit veterans especially hard. According to a 2013 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) had issued, on average, more than one opiate prescription per patient over the course of two years.

For many, cannabis offers a healthier, more holistic alternative.

“Since I got out, I lost 50 pounds switching from alcohol to weed or cannabis, and now I use it every day pretty much,” Williams says.

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In Williams current role, he’s involved in THC Design’s “post-extraction” processes, which include operations such as ethanol winterization—purifying and refining the end product—as well as testing new concepts for concentrate-based products. The position allows him to experiment with low-dose vape pens that provide enough CBD to manage his pain but not so much THC as to have psychoactive effects.

“We do a little bit of research and development,” he says with a grin and a laugh. “A new product comes out, we like to test it and see how it tastes.”

Futureberries on Day 54 of flower in Flower Room 5 (Alexander Drecun for Leafly).

According to Ophelia Chong, the company’s community liaison, the internship program allowed THC Designs to make the most of its community investment. While the company can “give $5,000 and put our logo on a conference,” Chong says, speaking with veterans helped the team determine that a paid training program would make a more lasting impact.

“We can give people as much cannabis as we want,” she says, “but it doesn’t really help. What they wanted … what they came back with is, ‘We want to work.’”

Seth Smith, Santa Cruz Veterans Alliance’s vice president of communications, says that while his organization is often approached by companies wanting to hire or create internships for veterans, THC Design was the first to hire a dedicated staff member to oversee the program and really “put their money where their mouth was.”

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The next class of THC Design interns are slated to begin in January, says Chong, and she’s hoping that at least half the incoming veterans will be women. The company also hopes to eventually make its course information public so entities across the country can reproduce the program.

In the meantime, Zac Williams says he’s just happy to have found a place where he belongs.

“The cannabis industry is so welcoming and inviting, because it really is a bunch of rebels,” he said. “People that didn’t fit in anywhere else, who weren’t accepted by regular society.”


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