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Former Green Beret on a mission over marijuana after Fountain police raid

August 26, 2017 Updated: August 31, 2017 at 1:33 pm
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Eli Olivas is suing Fountain police after they raided his legal grow operation with a flashbang and assault rifles. He had a license to grow 99 plants and had something like 15. Olivas is a former Green Beret who uses marijuana to treat his PTSD. Wednesday, August 23, 2017. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

After serving in Iraq as an Army Green Beret and later as a private contractor, Eli Olivas turned to marijuana to battle the nightmares that followed him home.

What peace he'd found was upended in July 2016, he alleges in a federal lawsuit filed this month, when Fountain police SWAT set off a flash-bang grenade outside his home. With rifles drawn, they demanded to be let in to inspect a licensed marijuana grow.

In his backyard in a covered greenhouse, were 18 plants - part of the 99 he was authorized to grow as a registered medical marijuana patient.

None were seized, and no charges filed, but the 6 a.m. raid registered like a bomb in his personal life, said Olivas, a Bronze Star recipient and third-generation soldier.

"The first thing I did was look at their hands. They were indexed on the triggers," he recalled in describing the raid that he says reawakened his post-traumatic stress disorder and contributed to a breakup with his live-in girlfriend, Marisela Chavez. Chavez, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was led by officers into their cul-de-sac naked except for a short night shirt, Olivas said.

Now the former member of Fort Carson's 10th Special Forces Group has embraced a new mission - sticking up for the right to grow marijuana in peace.

"When you knock down a Green Beret, we get back up," he said.

The legal fight over the raid comes as new developments in federal and state pot laws ripple the legal landscape for medicinal use.

This summer, Gov. John Hickenlooper handed veterans groups a long-sought victory in signing a bill that makes PTSD a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use in Colorado. Although Olivas credits cannabis with helping relieve his PTSD and helping him sleep, his 2015 doctor's recommendation was written for the treatment of severe pain, one of nine qualifying conditions at the time.

In July, Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House blocked an amendment to a bill that would have granted veterans access to state-approved medical marijuana programs through their federal doctors.

According to Olivas, his lawsuit, which seeks at least $1 million from the city of Fountain and police Sgt. Matthew Racine, is as much about protecting combat veterans' ability to safely use medical marijuana as it is about his ordeal.

An eight-page complaint charges that Fountain police failed to check the state's marijuana registry to confirm that Olivas was a registered grower.

A search warrant signed by El Paso County Judge Stephen J. Sletta said Olivas was suspected of failing to properly secure his marijuana plants, a charge that Olivas says is disputed by photographs taken at the time. Olivas' plants were inside a makeshift greenhouse with a locked door and thick plastic obscuring the contents. He had a 6-foot privacy fence with an extension that made it 11-feet high along the section facing his quiet cul-de-sac in a suburban neighborhood off Cross Creek. The drug agents had to ask him for a key to get in, he said.

A Fountain police spokesman, Sgt. Scott Gilbertsen, confirmed the raid occurred but declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Officers ended up taking samples of Olivas' plants and seized three legal firearms. He has yet to get them back.

"The search warrant stated the police were authorized to search for and seize firearms and ammunition but it did not state what crime was being committed by possessing either or both," his attorney, Terrance A. Johnson of Woodland Park, wrote in the complaint.

The legal clash highlights veterans' complaints they are at a disadvantage when it comes to reaping the drug's benefits.

Although medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and Washington, D.C., many avoid cannabis in part because of an uncertain legal climate, said Nick Etten, a Naval Academy graduate and former Navy SEAL who founded the nonprofit Veterans Cannabis Project, which advocates making the drug available to veterans. Compounding the issue are fears that the Veterans Administration could halt medical benefits if it learns that veterans are using marijuana, which the VA does not accept as a viable treatment.

As a result, veterans miss out on what can be a potent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, pain management and other combat-related conditions, Etten said.

"It's safer and more effective than a lot of what's currently offered by the VA," said Etten, a view that is disputed by the Veterans Administration and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warns about the potential for addiction, lasting brain impairment and other effects.

Etten attributed clinical opposition to a lack of research on marijuana, which largely has been stymied by federal prohibitions.

In June, the American Legion, one of the nation's most conservative veterans groups, joined in a call for allowing additional research on the drug, which is seen as an avenue for changing how it is viewed by clinicians.

Olivas, 40, is an unlikely spokesman for Colorado's medical marijuana program. He eschewed drugs during his career in the military, which also included an infantry combat tour in Bosnia, and passed routine urine tests mandated as part of security clearances required by 10th Special Forces Group and two private contractors. He produced military discharge papers, VA documents, photographs and other items to corroborate his military history.

Olivas has a 70 percent disabled rating for service injuries including a broken back suffered during airborne training and a traumatic brain injury he suffered as a Green Beret in northern Iraq.

After spending his last days in war zones as a contractor, he returned home in 2013 only to suffer nightmares and depression.

Psychotropic medications prescribed by VA doctors made things worse - turning him into a "zombie," he said.

"I really didn't hang out with anybody. I was completely reclusive. I couldn't function. I couldn't even do yard work," he said. "I was just in a really dark place."

After seeing a television special about a Green Beret who turned to cannabis to treat a child's seizure disorder, Olivas said he purchased cannabis-infused chocolate and finally experienced relief.

"I literally laid in bed and I could feel the pain peeling off me," he said.

Where the sleep aid Ambien gave him visions of "fires and snakes and people melting," marijuana let him sleep through the night without side effects, enabling him to complete a master's degree at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

Olivas, who also participates in psychotherapy, acknowledged that he gave marijuana to fellow veterans but said he hasn't accepted money.

He plans to continue growing marijuana and says he doesn't fear continued scrutiny by law enforcement.

"Bring it," he said. "I haven't done anything illegal."

Attorneys for the city of Fountain have yet to file a response to the complaint.

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