Justin Arriola, Utah

Navy veteran Justin Arriola, a former petty officer 3rd class who served in the Gulf, knows cannabis can help treat the effects of the herniated disc he suffered in the line of duty, but he doesn’t consider himself a patient. It was his mother’s breast cancer diagnosis that made him a public advocate.

Justin’s mother still speaks about her cannabis in whispers and doesn’t want her sisters to know, so Justin speaks for not just her but the other members of his family who have had to live with cancer. He also sees what a difference safe access to medical cannabis could make for other veterans, as well as the many Utahans who are confronting opiate addiction.

But legal consequences and stigma are still substantial in Utah, so speaking out has not been without risk. Justin had to think long and hard about the effects advocacy might have on his engineering business. He’d learned quite a lot about medical cannabis and was already applying his technical expertise to helping patients by consulting on setting up cultivation, working through an underground network of doctors and nurses facilitating medicine to individuals.

He was also chasing engineering jobs all over the country, which took him to Washington State and other places with robust medical cannabis programs. He used his industrial skills to help providers scale up from clandestine, hand-watered cultivation to automated 20,000-plant facilities with remote monitoring. He took classes and got certified in Colorado on extraction techniques.

As Justin learned the science, he met more patients and became privy to their stories. He saw the success people in other states. Seeing the people fighting finally have access and get the life they’d been fighting for helped him understand the need to speak out.

“When you’re really helping patients, particularly families with kids, it makes a difference,” he says. “To see them have a conversation with their kid when they couldn’t before, that’s really gratifying. It solidifies your activism.”

Justin worked on safe access campaigns in the State of Washington, but he assumed he’d never see it happen in Utah. But things have changed.

For the past year, Justin has worked with TRUCE, an advocacy organization in Utah, and is now working with a local veterans group for cannabis. Last May, he received a scholarship to attend ASA’s National Unity Conference, where he connected with other advocates, learned more about cannabis, and lobbied the offices of Senator Orrin Hatch and Representative Jason Chaffetz. That lobbying last spring was part of efforts that helped convince Sen. Hatch to introduce in September the Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017, or MEDS Act.

“It’s been hot and heavy since we’ve been back,” Justin says. “We’ve got a ballot initiative campaign in Utah, and public opinion has gone through the roof. I think we’re going to get on the ballot and get this passed.”

Utah remains a challenging state for advocacy. The legislature and law enforcement are not friendly, and the church dominates the conversation in most circles. Justin enjoys teaching those in opposition why their thinking is wrong, why medical cannabis is important in a state that ranks 7th in the nation in opiate overdoses. 

“I’ve lost friends, both vets and childhood, but I’ve also seen people weaned off heroin who become productive members of society,” says Justin. “That spurs me on to keep fighting.”

Justin worried that becoming a public voice would mean career suicide in a state such as Utah, but the blowback he feared never materialized. In fact, it’s proven to be a net positive. He’s looking forward to being back in D.C. for the ASA Unity Conference next May, where he’s looking to push it national.

“I believe in the plant,” Justin says.  “I’ve seen it do wonderful things for both people who are sick with disease and people who are sick with addiction.

This profile was originally published in the November 2017 ASA Activist Newsletter