How two veterans are overhauling opioid addictions with their cannabis company
“The cannabis industry needs more veterans, not just because they’re high quality people but because they can get sh*t done.” – Dan Tobon, founder and board member of American Fiber.
By Ruddy Cano, Article originally appeared on WeAreTheMighty.com
James Brobyn and Dan Tobon are two veterans with a passion for hiring and helping veterans through their company, American Fiber Co.
Brobyn, CEO of American Fiber Co. served with the U.S. Marine Corps for 13 years with multiple combat deployments and is a Purple Heart recipient. As enlisted, he worked on hueys before commissioning as a mobile infantry officer. James is the former Executive Director of the Travis Manion Foundation, rated 4-Stars by Charity Navigator. He also has experience as the Co-Founder of Cause Engine, which provides on-demand capacity building for the Modern Nonprofit. He attained a B.S. from the United States Naval Academy and M.S. from the University of Pennsylvania in NGO and Non-profit leadership.
Tobon is a founder and board member of American Fiber. U.S. Army veteran who served a combat tour in Iraq. As an 11B, from mounted reconnaissance to light recon, to full blown sniper reconnaissance for the last five years of his career. He is also the CEO of iVIK Holdings Ltd., an international cannabinoid company. His experience in the cannabis industry stems from his experience as the former CEO & COO of Franklin Labs, a licensed PA producer; Operations and Regulatory Consultant for Canna Pharmacy. A successful entrepreneur, his business experience includes several tech start-ups. He also served as an attorney with Latham & Watkins in London and holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois, and J.D. from University of Chicago Law School.
CBD stands for cannabidiol. Although found in many other plants, CBD occurs in higher concentrations in the Cannabis Sativa L. (hemp) plant. CBD is just one of the over 113 cannabinoids found in hemp.
WATM: How did you come up with this business idea?
Dan: James and I actually met back in Philadelphia back in 2013-2014. My wife took a fellowship at a children’s hospital in Philadelphia so we moved from Chicago. At the time I was the CEO of a company called Starchup. We are currently one of the largest mobile app providers in the laundry delivery space. James and I were part of the first cohort of Bunker Labs Philadelphia chapter. It was a group of about six veterans, all entrepreneurs. James was working on his company at the time, Cause Engine, and we just started paling around with similar interests. We have very similar personalities as go-getters and self-starters. We both took on a mentorship role for the other veteran entrepreneurs at Bunker Labs. After a year, year and half, of knowing each other, Pennsylvania was going to go medically legal. We realized we had both been tapped as prospective applicants for the Pennsylvania medical marijuana licensing initiative. We talked about how much we believed in cannabis, not just CBD, but cannabis in general and the benefits to the veteran community.
My brother happened to be a pain management doctor and saw firsthand the [negative] effects that opioids were having on his patients. He took a very strong interest in cannabis for pain management. Seeing my friends coming back from Iraq, some resorted to prescription medication or alcohol to deal with some of their issues. They faired poorly compared to the veterans who leaned more toward CBD and other cannabinoids. My personal experience is from a back injury in Iraq. I went through treatment, physical therapy, VA, private, all that stuff. Cannabis was a much better solution for me personally. I got back from Iraq and went to law school two months later. Cannabis was really the only thing that helped me concentrate on a first-rate education and improve my quality of life.
I became the CEO of a company called Franklin Labs after winning one of the licenses in Pennsylvania. I knew James had a strong interest in the industry, so, I asked him to join the company as the CEO of their Delaware operations. James took over and ran with it. Subsequently, we both left that company and started our own series of companies called American Fiber and iVIK. iVIK is an international cannabis company — it’s one of the companies we source our CBD from. It’s part of an operation out of Colombia called NuSierra. James, another partner, and I were the initial founders of American Fiber, which James is now the CEO and runs.
That’s where the Ambassador and Valor Craft brands are being launched. The use of cannabis is a strong proponent for the treatment of PTSD, chronic pain, back pain and other afflictions our generation of veterans deal with. I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I’ve been raising money for early-stage ventures and have launched a couple of successful companies. I met James and he had a shockingly similar profile as me. We found we shared a lot of the same beliefs in regard to cannabis and CBD. It’s been a dream working together because we’ve done a lot of really cool stuff in the space and we’re really excited for the future of these companies.
James: I think one of the cool things here, especially for the readers of We Are The Mighty, is Dan and I found each other through Bunker Labs. Without these local organizations connecting veterans that is not going to happen. To me, if you take the advocacy and all the work we do, the most important thing we can do is get veterans together and working with each other. Dan and I share values on how we want to approach business, same work ethic, and it seems to make a lot of sense to go after it. The opportunity to interact and work with other veterans – creates these other opportunities.
A lot of vets who have been deployed, especially grunts that have been in combat, are perfect to be entrepreneurs in cannabis. The best entrepreneur training is to stick some dudes in a little town in Iraq and say, ‘figure it out.’ There is literally no other better entrepreneurial training better than that. When I worked with Dan and the other partners I realized, ‘holy sh*t, these guys are really smart.’ All these smart people working together is going to make me smarter and better. Everyone has a similar background where no one settled. Everyone is looking to improve, innovate. Push the envelope, work with each other, collaborate and drive teams to succeed.
Cannabis is a very hard business. Navigating it requires great partners and laser focus otherwise it won’t work. We hire a lot of vets, spouses, and families because we share a lot of the same viewpoints we do. Initiative-based decision making is the value veterans bring to the community.
WATM: America is moving closer to nationwide, federal legalization of cannabis products. What myth would you like to dispel regarding the stigma of CBD products?
Dan: That’s a good question.
James: There’s a lot.
James: I think it is very well accepted. In my experience, people see it and generally accept it. There is a misconception around its efficacy, what it does, people can feel like it’s snake oil on the medicinal side. Some people think it’s just an awful drug on the other side. The more I learned about the plant and the endocannabinoid system that is in everyone’s body. They just found the endocannabinoid system like 15 years ago – literally scientists have recently discovered that cannabinoids connect with different receptors in our bodies. That’s where the anti-inflammatory piece comes from [regarding] cannabinoids. That’s why it is specifically so hard to dial in what cannabinoids do what because different cannabinoids react differently to the endocannabinoid system in our body that produces the positive, medicinal effects. That and euphoria. In a lot of ways, it is an incredibly complex, incredibly useful plant on so many levels. Honestly, whether you make rope with it or turn it into a T-shirt or help a kid with his epilepsy. I’ve seen all those things in real life.
Dan: I think the biggest stigma is misplaced. When we were kids, people from our generation were told ‘pharmaceuticals are good but other drugs are bad,’ without any real discussion about the benefits that could be had that have been around for thousands of years. I think we are moving past the stigmatization as more and more people from our generation use these drugs to medicate. One of the things we are fighting is that this is not a placebo. There are real effects that this plant has and real benefits if it is used responsibly. What we really need to do now is call for more scientific research into these molecules to make sure we’re getting the greatest benefit out of them with safety and efficacy. If anything is going to destigmatize the use of this plant it’s going to be learning about it, to have real scientific research done on it. It is truly a shame that veterans are losing benefits in the VA because they are choosing to self-medicate with something that is less harmful than the drugs they’re being given – and it works.
WATM: How do CBD products help veterans?
Dan: When I got back from Iraq I had an adverse reaction to something called Strattera because of my PTSD and inability to concentrate. I wasn’t getting more than four hours of sleep a night. It was wrecking me. I was going to start grad school in one of the most competitive schools in the world and I literally could not shut my eyes without vehicles exploding. When they put me on that drug, Strattera, I couldn’t sleep for four days straight. It got to the point where I almost had a psychotic episode. Luckily, the people around me noticed I was a little more twitchy than normal. It turned out the psychiatrist had been wrong. The person I was interacting with had zero experience with PTSD patients. That drug is specifically cited to have adverse effects with people going through type of episode. That’s when my brother approached me and said, ‘you should try something a little less intense. Maybe take some gummies I brought from Colorado and see if you can get some sleep.’
I slept like a f**king baby.
I slept almost 24 hours after not having slept for four days. Granted, I was coming down from Strattera and being exhausted contributed to sleeping for that long. That was my introduction using this type of medicine as a medicine to self-care. I was taking a huge risk. Possession of an ounce of cannabis was a felony in the state of Illinois at that time. It was crazy that as a decorated veteran that I couldn’t find a way to be treated with the normal tools were available to the psychiatrist I was seeing at the time. Also that I had to do something illegal to find a medication to help me deal with the issues I was dealing with at the time. The U.S. has come a long way since 2006 in terms of legalization, but I still think we have a ways to go to get the people at the VA healthcare system realize there is a lot of potential to do a lot of good. We have to be responsible with what products people are using, researching efficacy, and safety which is the stage we are at now.
WATM: If veterans want to come to you for their medical needs, how would they go about that?
James: Well, don’t come to Dan and I personally because we’re not doctors!
I think it is one of the challenges. We own some dispensaries in Michigan, we’re opening new ones in Delaware, we have access in Nevada. There are two different ways to get medicine, let’s focus on CBD, the state based regulatory systems are what they are. Dan’s oil at NuSierra, one of the easiest ways we recommend to most people is how your body reacts to cannabis. A lot of it is personal, we need to do more research into therapeutics so people take them and have an exact result. [The industry] is years from that. [The industry] needs to spend money and do it. Dialing into your medication, such as for sleep, the CBD we import from Colombia is USDA certified organic from NuSierra. We place it in glass bottles, it’s mixed with coconut oil to make it easier to digest. If you got to AmbassadorCBD.com you can dive through that eCommerce site and you’ll get our USDA organic oil straight from the mountains of Colombia, crafted by another veteran, straight to your door. Field grown, single origin, beautiful.
That’s the way you want to try CBD right now, honestly.
Look for the highest quality product you can get as someone new to CBD. Start from the top and dial it in from there. You want quality, clean products. We’re super transparent and above board but that’s not everybody. Customers can get access to testing and quality assurance information. It helps people narrow down what their CBD dosage is. For example, I take 3ml a day, so, three droplets in my smoothie in the morning and I’m good to go. I take it every day, it helps me stay even all day, stay focused. That’s what I found has been most successful for me. A lot of people use it in the evening for sleep. Everyone is a little different but taking the leap like, ‘I want to give this a try,’ will change your life. We also work with Sierra Delta, a non-profit organization that provides working dogs to vets. They’re actually one of the best non profits out there from what I could tell. As we deploy our Valor Craft brand is both a medical marijuana cannabis flower product but it is also going to be a veteran focused CBD line of products. One of our first initiatives is Valor Craft/Sierra Delta co-branded products, one focused on the vet and one focused on his dog.
Basically the consumers would buy it for themselves and something like $5 or other portion of the proceeds would go to Sierra Delta directly. We give back part of our sales, we already do in Michigan, that’s very valuable. As we get our operations up an running, we encourage and retain veterans as high quality people. Living by our values by supporting veterans. We don’t want to be like other companies who say they’re going to give a percentage of their proceeds and never do it.
We’re going to do it by giving them money based off of every sale. We want to help vets by putting our month where our mouth is by supporting great charities like Sierra Delta. Near term one of the most important things we have coming up is launching our Ambassador CBD line. We’re very excited about having people trying high quality, imported CBD oil from Jamaica and Colombia. Especially the NuSierra line, which is the only USDA 100% certified organic oil coming in from anywhere overseas – we’re the only people that can import it. We have a lot of exciting stuff going on.
WATM: Is there anything you would like to say to the readers of We Are The Mighty?
James: When it comes to the cannabis [industry] I say take the risk and jump in. It’s an awesome industry. Professionally, how people are trained, the industry needs you.
I want to hire veterans because they’re bad ass. Not because somebody feels bad for them. No! You get some meat eaters sitting at the table, you’re going to get a lot of stuff done. You’re going to do it and you’re going to have a lot of fun doing it. You can trust that they’re going to deliver because they told you they were going to do it. That’s the advantage of hiring vets [as a vet] because you have this common starting place. They still have to earn their spot but if I have a former grunt platoon sergeant or 0369 that doesn’t know how to get out after it, I’m going to know pretty quick. There are a lot more of the guys who do know how to get out after it and get it done responsibly with high integrity. Tons of opportunity there.
** Ambassador CBD has now been rebranded to Valor Craft Performance. See more details here.