As 27-year-old veteran Jose Martinez ambled on his prosthetic legs, a crutch tucked under what remains of his amputated right arm, a stranger approached him.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you,” the man said.
“I lived, sir,” Martinez replied. “I’m walking. I’m talking. I’m living. Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not supposed to be doing any of this stuff right now.”
Just two years ago, after both of his legs and right arm were blown off in Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED, Martinez was doing none of these things.
Crippled by his loss of his limbs coupled with a debilitating pain pill addiction, he thought he’d soon be dead. He credits cannabis with helping him regain his life and manage his enormous pain.
“Cannabis is just a guide,” he says. “I was fortunate to have it to direct me where I needed to be.”
Today, Martinez is helping other veterans obtain similar relief through the Weed for Warriors Project, an organization focused on ensuring veterans have the choice of marijuana therapy in all states.
This week, the group’s founders made a stop at the Southwest Cannabis Convention and Expo in downtown Phoenix, on a mission to spread the word about the medical benefits of cannabis.
For Martinez, the pills he was prescribed left him suicidal as he dealt with the agony of losing three of his limbs and 30 percent of his internal organs.
“Being on pills I hated the world,” says the Los Angeles resident. “My struggle with opiates, I tried to commit suicide every day. I took so many pills I thought I’d never wake up again.”
Just two years earlier, Martinez was with his army platoon when he stepped on the bomb.
When his body hit the ground, his limbs were hanging by bloody strips of flesh.
He remembers every moment.
Suddenly three soldiers from his squad were on top of him, clamping down his bloody wounds to impede the blood loss.
“Leave me here, let me die,” Martinez screamed.
“Shut up!” his fellow soldier shouted back, as he called over the radio for help.
Twenty-five minutes later the emergency medical helicopter landed and took Martinez to the hospital where he remained in a coma, clinging to life, for 10 days.
“When I woke up from the blast, my body had changed, my whole world had changed,” he says. “I was disgusted with my body. I was a statue pretty much.”
For years he battled an opiate addiction as he underwent multiple surgeries, before one day deciding to quit.
"I knew there would be life after," he says. "There was no living like this."
After recovering from a massive opiate withdrawal, he discovered medicinal marijuana, which effectively helped him manage his pain.
Then in 2014, while attending a different marijuana convention, Martinez was approached by another stranger—fellow veteran Kevin Richardson.
“Are you a veteran?” Richardson asked.
“How can you tell?” Martinez glanced down at his missing limbs and smirked.
“I can see it in your eyes,” Richardson replied. “You can tell a veteran by the look in his eyes.”
A father of four, Richardson was a federal contractor and a professional mixed martial artist who had his own brawl with pain pills he was prescribed for PTSD.
“The VA got me addicted to Viocodin,” Richardson says. “I almost lost my marriage, I almost lost everything.”
Following a suicide attempt, a fellow veteran introduced him to medical marijuana, which he says provided relief and allowed him to regain his life.
Richardson began advocating for cannabis for veterans and in 2014 launched the Weed for Warriors Project. As part of its work, the group collects donations of cannabis and makes it accessible to veterans who cannot afford it.
“We’ve helped hundreds of veterans with cannabis,” Richardson says. “We’re pretty much putting them on a mission.”
Richardson recruited Martinez to the Weed for Warriors Project, and they plan to take their fight for cannabis to Washington D.C. where they will dump hundreds of collected pain pills out in front of the White House.
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“We want to make a political statement,” Richardson says. “It’s going to represent over-medication of our veterans.”
In Phoenix this week, they spread word of their mission at the three-day conference at the Phoenix Convention Center, 100 North Third Street. Thousands of marijuana enthusiasts gathered at the expo to sample marijuana merchandise and learn more about Arizona’s growing cannabis industry.
Martinez hopes events like this signify a turning point in how the public views medical marijuana.
“We went and fought for our country,” he says. “We just want to be free to medicate the way that we choose to.”