"It's all about money. They're fighting medical marijuana everywhere because they know that medical marijuana will heal people and get them off of drugs."
The military man-turned-impassioned politician talks about legalizing cannabis in his state against all odds, and how a fighting spirit has helped his crusade.
A real dose of medicine right now — the veteran and state senator doesn’t hold back on the issues that are affecting the American people: Big Pharma corroding his state, how the system is failing drug addicts, and the threats on his life (yep, you read that right) for speaking truth to power. Here, Richard shares his inspiring story of a scrawny, scrappy kid who grew up to be a fearless soldier, veteran, and state senator as he takes on legislature and Big Pharma to bring medical marijuana to the people who need it most. Plus, don’t miss a juicy tip-off for investors.
The Highly: Richard, your story arc traces from soldier to politician. How did that transition happen?
Richard Ojeda : I retired from the United States Army and came back to West Virginia with a master’s degree, and could have stayed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, making six figures for the rest of my life. But I have never been home, except when I am standing in Logan County, West Virginia.
I spent 24 years in the military. I've been all over the Middle East. And I've lost friends. We risked our lives over there because we wanted to help those people to have just a sliver of the great things that we have in America. Then you retire, and you come home, and you realize it's all a lie. We still have poverty. Our kids have it just as bad here as they do in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then I started a non-profit organization called LEAD (Logan Empowerment Action and Development). We started picking up tires. We covered up graffiti; we've picked up trash. We sent 5,000 children to school with brand new shoes on their feet. Then when I finally started looking around and realizing that the leadership at all levels, our congressman — would come down here and show up three days before the election, he would write checks to the biggest crooks in the county, and then he would disappear and we wouldn't see him again until the next election. I said, "You know what? I'm done with this." When I went to ask the leadership if they could help, I got told to shut my effing mouth and let leaders do what leaders do, and that I needed to just continue picking up trash. I'm going to tell you, I will not let anyone throw the term "leader" around loosely. So I said, "I've led men under fire in combat. I'm better than these people." So, you know what? I started challenging. That's the reason why they tried to have me killed last year. But you know what? That didn't stop me. That fueled me. I refuse to let somebody win because of underhanded tactics, because of corruption. I won't do it. You're going to have to kill me.
TH: Your achievement in getting medical marijuana passed in West Virginia was a small miracle. How did you get it done?
RO:When you are fighting for something that is important, the people will back you. With medical marijuana, I stood up and I told people, “Everybody has somebody that they're kin to that has multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, ADHD, suffering from different forms of cancer, going through chemotherapy.” This is a seed given by God, let us use it to heal our people. When I started giving those passionate speeches, people started saying, "This guy's right." When I went to the one senator that runs the health and human resources committee, he looked me in the face, and said, "Big Pharma don't want it." The first thing I said to him was, "Are you in Big Pharma's pocket? Because I'm not." Then I went over and I grabbed the microphone, and I gave a speech about how we should not be controlled by any of these organizations. We need to think about the people. I will tell you, it started a wildfire.
TH: So the bill is passed but they still make it hard for people to get the proper care.
RO: They did a lot of damage to my medical marijuana bill. They took away my plants because they didn't want the bill to pass. I want to give people the ability to have eight plants because poor people get cancer more than rich people do. Rich people drink Evian water, and poor people drink from the tap and end up getting sick from it. If you have horrible or no insurance and you get cancer, you can grow your own plants in your house, pouring your own water on those plants, and you're not having to buy them from a drug dealer—then you can have your medicine.
TH:Doctors serving as dealers—will they ever be held accountable?
RO:I pray that day comes and it comes soon. Right now, with what we know about Oxycontin and Hydrocodone, it should absolutely be pulled off of the market. Last year more people lost their lives to opioid addiction than all the lives lost in the Vietnam War.
TH:Why aren’t we fighting Big Pharma then?
RO: It's all about money. They're fighting medical marijuana everywhere because they know that medical marijuana will heal people and get them off of the drugs that they have been on for many years. It's not just your Oxycontin and Hydrocodone. My mother was taking 15 pills a day. My mother now takes CBD oil and she's cut 13 of those pills. And she's feeling better than she ever has.
TH: But how does Big Pharma always win when medical marijuana would benefit the people, the state, taxes...?
RO: Because you have Big Pharma paying off the people that are standing in the way of allowing that to happen. If you check out followthemoney.org, you will absolutely see exactly who these people really worship. You know, everybody wants to get up there and act like they're religious, but of course they look past the poor and take care of the filthy rich. And they're all too quick to sell their souls to Big Energy and Big Pharma.
TH: Looking into the future, what happens when marijuana eventually gets legalized and then Big Pharma comes in a new way, and now they decide, Okay, we're going to take this plant, and we're going to own this market, and turn it into a synthetic God-knows-what?
RO: You know, a person going through chemotherapy, where they absolutely felt like they were going to die, the nauseousness was so bad, two puffs from a marijuana cigarette and it goes away. They say, "Well, you can take a Marinol pill." Okay, well tell me something: Can you keep a Marinol pill down when you're throwing up every two minutes? Well, you can't put it past them because we already know what they're about. That's why it's important people get involved. We got medical marijuana passed in West Virginia, and Big Pharma didn't want it. We didn't spend a dime. Other states' medical marijuana organizations will spend millions to try to get it legalized in their states, and they get nothing. In West Virginia they said, "We don't even want to try because it's not worth it and it'll never happen." And we got it passed. The key thing is making sure that as long as the people stand in solidarity with anything, you can win. And make no mistake about it — when Big Pharma comes in here and tries to act like they want to completely control that market — guess what? If the people stand together, they can leave.
TH: With so much dirtiness, how do you avoid getting trapped in it?
RO: Oh, they're greedy people. And they're making millions and billions. But what they do is, they send those lobbyists to these legislators. The lobbyists sat in front of me, and they said, "Will you be for forced pooling?" And I said, "Absolutely not." The next thing that come out of their mouths was, "What can we do to change your mind?" I told them, "You can get your ass out of my office." But how many legislators didn't say that? How many legislators said, "Hey, I'm going to have a tough race coming up, and I could really use some money." And that's the problem we've always had. We’ve got legislators out there that only care about themselves and increasing their wealth and power.
TH:If you had 30 seconds with President Trump, what would you say?
RO:I would tell him that he needs to allow medical marijuana to be able to heal its people. It's that simple.
TH:What are your thoughts on recreational marijuana?
SO:My main focus has always been medical marijuana. Because I want to help people that are sick.
But you cannot look past the fact that places like Colorado are absolutely booming right now. We had 20 legislators go to Colorado this summer and some of them were absolutely anti-marijuana. And every single one of them came back and said, “This is something we may really need to start looking into. They did a lot of mountaintop removal down here in West Virginia. They have already tested the soil on the top of these mountains. We also have the best soil in the world for marijuana, hemp, and lavender. [Ed: Investor alert!] West Virginia can do it pretty much year-round. Everybody in the world would be ordering it, and wanting us to mail the product to them. As a matter of fact, there's a place called Salt Rock in Cabell County, which has been known as the best place in the world for the growing of marijuana.
TH: Oh, so you are sitting on a gold mine, literally?!
RO: Yes, we are. I just need to have enough legislators that have the guts to stand up and demand we finally get a taste. There's a thing going on, and the average citizen is sick and tired of what we currently have, and those legislators that are not willing to stand up and start fighting for the people. Guess what? Fire them on election day, and send their asses packing.
TH: Huntington, WV is often called the opioid capital of America. Do you have a plan to tackle that?
RO: Well, Huntington, for many years has actually been nicknamed Moneyton because that's where all of the drugs are coming into West Virginia — from Chicago, Detroit, and Ohio. The problem in Huntington was a mismanagement of funds. What they ended up doing was, cutting the police. How are you going to fight the drug epidemic when you are laying off your police officers? I think the citizens of West Virginia are absolutely wanting somebody who has some fire. I am an absolute stick of dynamite. I always have been.
TH: But what about the current addict situation?
RO: We have to forgive these people because they're addicted. There's not one single prostitute that wants to have some toothless, raggedy man rolling all around her. But she does it because she's addicted, and the addiction is stronger than the love she has for herself. The same thing goes for the parent that sits a child down and goes and takes a hit. We have to understand that it is addiction, and we have to figure out ways that we can clean these people. The problem is, West Virginia has 200 beds. That's not even near enough beds for a community with the addiction problem that we have. We have a lot of drug rehabilitation programs that are garbage. You're spending millions dollars on a program that graduates four people a year. There's programs all across the United States of America that have a 75 to 85% success rate. We need to start mirroring those successful programs, and putting them in all the states.
But there's more: you have to practice forgiveness in the churches. Churches have to be able to open their doors because they're supposed to. And you know, I got told by people, "Don't you bring them to our church." We've got to work with the communities. We've got to work with the businesses and say, “Look here: I'm not asking you to give them the keys to the safe, but give them a job." That person is coming off of rehabilitation, and they're happy. They're finally feeling, "I'm clean, and I got it beat." But then we release them onto the streets. Nobody will hire them because they were drug addicts. Nobody wants to hang out with them. And everybody wants to feel like they belong. So eventually, when nobody talks to them, and everybody shuns them, they're going to go where they're going to get respect, and it's going to be under the bridges and in the back alleys, and they're going to fall right back into the same problem, and it's the rotating door that just absolutely kills us.
You give them a job. Give them a minimum wage job, and you know what? They may become your best employee. In three years, you may go, "Hey, because I'm able to pay this guy a decent wage, he's now taken over the head of his household again. He's got his kids back. His wife is now with him again. And he's trying to be a productive member of society. And I'm paying him a decent wage." Now, he says, "I'm not going to lose that." We've got to give these people the ability to say, "I'm not going to give up this job that I have. I'm not going to give up my family. I'm finally putting food on the table. I'm out there working, and I'm feeding my babies." There's a lot of pride in that. And you know, we need to figure out how we can absolutely get that going.
When I was in the military, especially my younger years, I was an Airborne and we trained hard. But when we were off, believe me, it was the bars, and everybody fighting and everything. But you know what always kept me from sticking my keys into the ignition and trying to drive? I loved my job. I loved being a soldier more than I loved to party. That's what kept me from drinking and driving, and doing things like that. Because I knew that if I messed that up, I would no longer be allowed to be called a soldier. That meant everything in the world to me.
TH: When I was in my teens, I had nothing and was desperate for a job. I knew I had to look the part to get the job, but there was no money to get the clothes, so I stole them. There was no choice. I don't think people realize what it really takes to come back fighting out of a hole. It often feels close to impossible and takes super human strength to keep trying. It's not as easy as "just do this" or "just do that". You need someone to give you a chance.
RO: Yeah. We have to commit. We have to commit to doing everything in our power to change the situation.
TH: So how can change happen when doctors and dealers alike don’t stop pushing the drugs?
RO: Well, you know, the pharmacies are just doing their job. We were targeted with Oxycontin and Hydrocodone. I can show you a small pharmacy in the town of Kermit, that only has, like, 190 people. That pharmacy distributed more Oxycontin than any other place in America—over nine million pills. The problem is, it's these doctors. You know, there are places you can go on a certain day, where you will have a line around the corner. This is what you have to do in terms of these doctors: track. Because every single death should fall on their shoulders. And he absolutely wrote prescription, after prescription, after prescription, after prescription. Every single death, every single theft, should fall on their shoulders. But we’ve got to get these people clean. It's kind of like the battle of the frozen Chosin reservoir in Korea. 67,000 Chinese surrounded our troops, and they had nowhere to go. You can't give up. You give up, you die. We're in that situation right now. Our back is against the wall. We have got to figure out what we can do to win.
TH: Why are there so many people living below the poverty line in your own backyard? What can we do?
RO: You know, we're 48th in the nation in pay. The governor continues to play these games. Last year, they said they were going to give teachers a two percent pay raise, which only added up to $35 dollars every two weeks. Then, they all fall under this PEIA insurance, and it's absolutely horrible. It's like they try to do things to make these people that fall under it—state employees, police, fire, first responder, corrections, teachers, bus drivers, everybody falls under it. It is a program that, literally, all it is about is chipping away at benefits and raising premiums. Teachers haven't received a raise in a long time, and we continue to chip away and raise their premiums. They're just continuing to drop lower and lower into the poverty lane, you know? I got up and I gave a speech, and I said, "Look: we have a volcano that's about to erupt." A lot of it comes down to this PEIA, and we are a filthy rich state. We gave coal away decades ago. Our state has made people billionaires, and we are poor.”
TH: Moving forward, how do you get the guts to fight when so many bad people are against you? How do you keep at it when it’s just so frustrating?
RO: Well, I have a lot of things that make me refuse to give up. I graduated high school very small, weighing 82 pounds. I started wrestling in the ninth grade in the 75-pound weight class, although I was only 52 pounds. But I won. As a person that grew up really small with two beautiful sisters, I had to fist-fight my whole life. You know, it is what it is. I've just become that guy. If I don't believe in it, I'm going to say something about it. It's just the way that I've always been.
Spending 24 years in the Army, I found myself surrounded with the best of the best. I've got 13 names [tattooed] on my back of soldiers that never came home. One time I asked my father, because I was pretty down because we had lost a wonderful human being, and I said, "Why is it that we always lose the best in combat?" My father said, "Son, that's because the best always volunteer to be in the front. They're always where the action is."
It gets frustrating at times, but I always make it a point, no matter what, I always drive home. A lot of legislators get hotel rooms and they spend the whole two months in session in Charleston. It's an hour drive, but I drive home every night because I know when I walk through my door, no matter how bad the day has been, my wife walks up and she gives me a hug. That's all I need.