For the last 30 years, Don Shearer’s Windward Aviation has carried out a wide variety of contracts for local, state and federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency’s marijuana eradication flights. He’s a committed anti-drug warrior. But recently he decided to start a new company: Grateful Meds. That’s right: Don Shearer applied to open a medical marijuana dispensary on Maui (his wife Donna will help manage Grateful Meds, and currently helps run Windward).
Grateful Meds is on the state Department of Health’s official list of 66 medical marijuana dispensary applicants (16 of which are on Maui). In April, state health officials will chose two Maui names to open dispensaries here in Maui County. Given some of the big names associated with some of the other applicants (Woody Harrelson, Shep Gordon, Sen. J. Kalani English and Wailuku attorney Tony Takitani), Shearer has tough competition.
On Monday, Mar. 7, I sat down with Shearer at his Windward Aviation offices at Kahului Airport. He was constantly monitoring the fire channels because of the ongoing brush fires in Kahikinui–one of his helicopters was prepped to fly if he got a call–but he was able to spare some time in the early afternoon. There, with the sounds of arriving and departing jet airliners literally just a runway away, we spoke about why such a committed drug warrior–which is how he described himself in our first phone conversation–would want to start selling medical marijuana in Maui County.
MAUITIME: Thanks for sitting down with me–I know you’ve been focused on the fires out in Kahikinui.
DONALD SHEARER: We operate sunrise to sunset every day of the year. We go out and fight fires, as well as find people. We’re kinda over the Kahikinui fire though. We’ve had areas where it hadn’t burned for five days, but then we’ve had five breakouts. We couldn’t let the pressure off. But we do make a living off that.
MT: So when did Windward Aviation start?
DS: We started in 1990. We’re a utility helicopter company, which means we do everything except tours. We had 10 helicopters and 22 employees at one time, but now we just have three and nine employees. We’ve flown over 90,000 hours since we started.
We’re certified to haul passengers, suspend cargo with rope, spray herbicides, pesticides. We have contracts with the Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey, the National Park Service. We also have contracts with the Department of Defense to support the military.
MT: Such as?
DS: We did a lot with the Kahoolawe cleanup project. In addition, there’s the Domestic Cannabis Eradication Suppression Program (DCESP) and we have contracts with the fire department and all police departments in the state. We also have contracts with DLNR [state Department of Land and Natural Resources].
MT: What do you do for those agencies?
DS: We eradicate invasive species like pampas grass and coqui frogs. For the frogs, we fill our water buckets with citric acid. We’ve also done a lot of Hollywood productions–television, movies. We did a James Bond movie, Waterworld, a lot of National Geographic specials, a bunch of car commercials and all of Laird [Hamilton]’s movies at Jaws. We’ve been very successful in this highly regulated business.
MT: How’d you get started in it?
DS: It was a dream of mine as a young kid. First, I got my airframe and powerplant license certification. I learned how to fly helicopters in 1979. Then I was hired by Continental Airlines and asked to move to Maui and fly helicopters.
MT: Wait–you were given two different job offers?
DS: Within the same week. I was hired by Continental Airlines to be a pilot, but also asked to move to Maui and fly. So I came to Maui. That was 1985.
MT: Ok. Let’s talk about the marijuana eradication flights your company has done.
DS: We’ve really been involved in that since the beginning. Tom Hauptman of Pacific Helicopters got going with it in 1982, ‘83. He was the only one doing it then. But in 1985 we sub-leased to a company in Hilo flying over the volcano, which was erupting. Before I knew it I was agreeing to do marijuana eradication flights for the police there.
MT: What do the flights entail?
DS: We’d fly to where the marijuana was growing and land as close to the spot as possible, if we could, and cut down the plants. Or if we couldn’t, we’d land nearby and our guys would get out. We’d then take off and drop 100 feet of rope–the officers would hook on and then I would carry them over to the patches. They’d disconnect, and then I’d leave the area until they were done cutting down the plants, and then I’d fly back and pick them up.
MT: How did flights back then compare to eradication flights these days?
DS: We used to fill up a dump truck a day. Actually, more than a dump truck. When I moved here, if you took off from any airport in Hawaii, you couldn’t fly for more than a minute without spotting marijuana. It was everywhere. It was amazing.
MT: What changed that?
DS: In 1990, 91, we had Operation Wipeout. There were 13 agencies involved, including the Department of the Interior, the National Guard, the Army and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency]. The DEA was the lead.
We gridded the entire state of Hawaii into 10-kilometer squares. Then we did each square until there was no more marijuana. We started on the Big Island. It took us 16 weeks straight to do the state. We found patches the size of basketball courts. There was major destruction of native forests–it was horrible.
MT: Definitely seems like a big operation.
DS: We got to the point where we developed a spray system. Now we have a spot-sprayer: I can spray a three-foot circle with no overspray. Now we can just spray it, kill it and move on.
MT: Sounds like marijuana eradication has been lucrative, too.
DS: It’s been a good source of revenue for my company. At one point, this was about 70 percent of my revenue. But the funding has dropped. We don’t find the numbers anymore that we used to. We don’t see huge patches anymore. Now it’s more of a compliance check. In Wipeout, we wiped out all the big-time growers. Then we went to backyard growers. But it was a nerve-wracking business.
MT: How so?
DS: Back then there were no cell phones. We had to take security precautions like guarding the aircraft 24 hours a day.
MT: Did anyone ever take some sort of action against you?
DS: No. We heard threats but nothing ever materialized.
MT: Nonetheless, it sounds like you’ve built up some pretty strong ties to law enforcement across the state.
DS: The reason we’re able to be successful is that municipalities out here aren’t big enough to have their own aircraft. The Fire Department could probably buy their own, but then they’d have to maintain it. But under our contract, if our helicopter breaks, we have one hour to replace it.
But I’ve known three, four generations of police officers. I value their friendships more than most. And they’ve supported me through the years. We’re their vendor of choice, and I fully expect that to continue.
MT: Given all that, why do you want to open Grateful Meds and get into the medical marijuana business?
DS: There’s been a shift in how that’s perceived. Naturopathy is something I’m big on. I hate synthetic painkillers–pharmaceuticals are horrible. If there’s an alternative like CBD [cannabidiol] that can work, I think education will allow that industry to flourish, especially for people in end-of-life care, people who are terminally ill. I think it’s an alternative that can only help society.
I think it’s something I can manage, maintain and control, and that I’m just as qualified, if not more so.
MT: Sounds like you’d want to run Grateful Meds a lot like Windward Aviation.
DS: It will be designed after the operations of my helicopter company. I want to a have a drug- and alcohol-free workplace. Employees couldn’t have any felony convictions on their record. And we’d drug-test our employees. We have three levels of security where we are right now. It would be easier in many ways than running my company right now. This is a business opportunity for me, and I’m a very compliant person. We could be audited by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] right now. This requires discipline.
MT: What do your law enforcement friends think of this idea?
DS: Almost everyone I know in law enforcement would want to do this if they could. If they could demonstrate the ability and finance it, they would.
DS: Because the other thing about medical marijuana is that it’s legal. I don’t want to do anything that’s illegal. No one wins whenever anyone does something illegal.
MT: It may be legal, but even if you win the dispensary contract, there are still huge legal hurdles to overcome.
DS: Oh, you mean like the banks?
MT: Well, I was talking about the Associated Press story last week that talked about labs. Because they’re expensive, there’s only likely going to be one testing lab, on Oahu. And no one knows how to get the medical marijuana from Oahu to Maui, because you can’t take it through any airports or ports.
DS: That’s right, but our bigger concern is banking. What, am I just going to walk into a bank with a bucket of cash? We’ve been in contact with every bank on Maui and they don’t want to touch it.
MT: Seems like that might make opening a dispensary more trouble than it’s worth.
DS: Yeah, but to go through everything I’ve been through, it seems very easy to me. But it’ll likely be a year or two before we’re even showing a profit. The application process was long, and the application fee was non-refundable. And lots of things are still ambiguous. There’s a huge learning curve here–not just for the dispensaries, but also for the people enforcing the laws.
Cover Design: Darris Hurst
Cover Photo courtesy Don Shearer