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A Florida veteran is fighting the federal government for legal medical marijuana



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  • Photo by Jen Cray
  • Jose Belen

It's late February, but the sunshine gleaming over Veterans Memorial Park just off the Sanford Riverwalk makes it feel like summertime. He comes here to clear his mind. Out of earshot of the city's white noise, all you can hear are birds chirping and the dull roar of an old man pressure-washing his sailboat on a distant dock.

Then, of course, there's the noise inside Belen's head, those unforgiving rumblings that come with post-traumatic stress disorder. The condition serves as a memento of his service as a decorated field artillery soldier in the U.S. Army – a parting gift for his patriotism and bravery.

Like many soldiers, he survived the battlefield only to come home a fragment of the man he was. After years of trying and failing to find the right pharmaceutical cocktail – something that would quell the relentless nightmares and keep his temper in check – Belen found an alternative treatment that works for his health, but doesn't work in accordance with federal law: cannabis.

Now, the 35-year-old finds himself toe-to-toe with the United States government, fighting for the rights of his fellow brothers and sisters in arms. He's part of a group suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Agency and DEA Director Chuck Rosenberg for the right for all to legally use medical marijuana. (His medical marijuana certification as a patient in Florida is currently being processed.)

Included in that group are Belen; Marvin Washington, a former NFL player who advocates cannabis for pain; Alexis Bortel, a 12-year-old who requires cannabis oil for her epileptic seizures; Jagger Cotte, a 7-year-old who uses cannabis oil for a severe neurodegenerative disease; and the Cannabis Cultural Association, an organization that helps communities affected by the drug war participate in the legal cannabis industry.

The lawsuit, originally filed in July in the Southern District of New York, argues that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional, as is its definition of the herb as a drug with "no accepted medical use" and "a high potential for abuse." It claims that the federal government has "admitted repeatedly in writing and implemented national policy reflecting that cannabis does, in fact, have medical uses and can be used and tested safely under medical supervision."

While several of his fellow plaintiffs require cannabis for physical ailments, Belen's involvement demonstrates that medical marijuana can also help those afflicted with psychological disorders.

Weed, he says, helps him get through the darkest moments, such as a recent trip to the dentist's office with his 4-year-old daughter, where he flashed back to the day he watched the little girl die in Iraq.

"I fought so hard to not break down in there. But that's why cannabis helps, because it allows you to block the pain in a way," he says. "I use it as medicine. Cannabis was able to help me find my smile again. That 19-year-old boy who enlisted – the kid before I got into Iraq that was going to kill if I had to, the guy who was bled of all emotion – started feeling love again, happiness, smiling."

According to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which analyzed 55 million veterans' records from 1979 to 2014, approximately 20 veterans commit suicide every day. Many of those suicides come as a result of PTSD.

In all, PTSD afflicts about 9 percent of the VA's patients, as well as 20 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

Many of these vets receive trauma-based psychotherapy – what the VA's website calls "the most highly recommended type of treatment for PTSD" – which typically focuses on different forms of cognitive-processing methods divvied up over several sessions. There's also narrative exposure therapy (i.e., talking through your trauma) and written exposure therapy (writing through it). Though the VA claims there isn't research to support such methods, it also recommends things like yoga, meditation and acupuncture.

Then there's cannabis. It's difficult to determine how many vets are using pot to treat their PTSD. The VA has only studied cannabis use among patients under its care, not among the general population of veterans with PTSD. Moreover, VA doctors can't prescribe it because of federal law.

That's despite the fact that marijuana has been legalized in some form in 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico. Twenty-eight of those states (minus Alaska) now include PTSD in their medical marijuana programs.


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