New momentum is seen in veterans' fight for medical marijuana
By BILLY COX | Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. | Published: November 19, 2018
SARASOTA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Military veterans lobbying for an end to federal classification of marijuana as a lethal substance with no redeeming medicinal value may be closer to that goal than ever before, given the midterm election results.
Between the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, last week's forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and a federal lawsuit led by a 12-year-old girl with epilepsy, the cannabis prohibition drama is set to unfold on multiple fronts.
"I did a happy dance when Sessions left," said Jose Belen, a Marine Corps veteran who uses marijuana to mitigate the post-traumatic syndrome disorder diagnosis he received following his 2003 tour of Iraq. "I'm not having unrealistic expectations, but my nature is to be optimistic. And my expectations are, I'm hoping to see the right thing done."
Belen shared a horrific story of prescription opioid withdrawal in a Herald-Tribune project called "Warriors Rise Up." The project took a look at the suicide epidemic claiming the lives of 20.6 veterans and active-duty troops each day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Between 2005 and 2015, the agency says more than 75,000 Americans with military backgrounds killed themselves.
For Leo Bridgewater, a 43-year-old Iraq veteran who demonstrated for legalization during a Memorial Day "Plants Over Pills" rally in Washington, D.C., recent developments signal the beginning of a rational new era in American drug policy, particularly with its armed forces.
"I'll tell you the truth," says Bridgewater, "if they let us smoke cannabis in the Army, I would still be in today. I would estimate that 75, maybe 80 percent of the guys in uniform feel the same way. They just can't say it."
Canada began subsidizing medical marijuana for veterans in 2008. In October, it allowed active duty troops to light up under specified off-duty conditions.
Bridgewater and Belen have joined young Alexis Bortell in litigation against what they allege is the Justice Department's "unconstitutional" refusal to scratch cannabis off the Schedule 1 list, which puts it in the same category as heroin, more dangerous than cocaine. The plaintiffs also include fellow pediatric patient Jagger Cotte, 6, and former NFL player/cannabis entrepreneur Marvin Washington.
The "green wave" legalization steamroller notched more big wins last week when Michigan became the first Midwestern state to authorize cannabis for adult use, bringing the national tally to 10. Voters also ushered medical marijuana into Utah and Missouri, the 32nd and 33rd states to adopt that option.
Traditionally more receptive to legalization than Republicans, Democrats regained the House by margins that are still being tallied in state recounts. In recent years, however, prohibition has been under fire from both parties, with the bipartisan "Cannabis Caucus" — two Dems, two GOP — forming in 2017 to enact more flexible laws. But two powerful Republicans responsible for blocking legislation in committees, Pete Sessions of Texas and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, will not be back in January.
Sessions lost his job as chair of the House Rules Committee in a failed re-election bid. Goodlatte, who ran the House Judiciary Committee, chose to retire. As a result, wrote Deputy Director Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "it would be political malpractice for the (GOP) to not prioritize enacting comprehensive marijuana policy reform in the 116th Congress."
However, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, staunch marijuana opponent Charles Grassley of Iowa has refused to allow bipartisan legislation to reach the Senate floor for debate. Grassley, 85, isn't up for reelection until 2022. And Trump's pick for acting Attorney General, Matthew Whitaker, "boasted about successfully prosecuting cannabis for drug offenses" as a federal prosecutor in Iowa in 2009, said attorney Lauren Rudick.
"But we don't know if he's going to share Jeff Sessions' perspectives today. Things have changed a lot since then, and 50 percent of Americans are living in states where cannabis is legal."
Rudick will be representing appeals by Bortell, Belen, Bridgewater and the rest in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Dec. 12. In February, Judge Alvin Hellerstein rejected their complaint against DOJ. He argued they had not exhausted all administrative remedies, and should instead have petitioned the Drug Enforcement Agency for relief first.
"But doing so," countered Rudick, "would have been a futile exercise inasmuch as the decision makers responsible for rescheduling cannabis have repeatedly rejected similar efforts over more than a decade. Also, the average amount of time that it takes to decide on a rescheduling petition takes between seven and nine years. Our plaintiffs need medical cannabis to live. They need relief now."
A "medical refugee" who suffers from epilepsy, Alexis Bortell and her family moved three years ago from Texas, which has no medical marijuana laws, to Colorado. Her cannabis treatments employ oils and sprays, and have kept the 12-year-old's seizures in check ever since.
But because marijuana is federally illegal, her father, 100 percent disabled Navy veteran Dean Bortell, is unable to procure life-saving products for his daughter at any military base, no matter where it's located. Furthermore, local laws prohibit the Bortell from adhering to her medical regimen in states that ban marijuana.
If the judge accepts the plaintiffs' appeal, says Rudick, their case will go to trial. She says a ruling next month is unlikely.
Trial or no, former Army sergeant Bridgewater is keeping a wary eye on the Attorney General's office, as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie's name is among those under consideration to replace Jeff Sessions full-time.
Christie, who left the governor's office in January after eight years, brands legalization advocates as "crazy liberals" who want to "poison our kids." He has called tax revenues from marijuana "blood money." At a press conference last year, Christie claimed, without evidence, that teen marijuana users are 10 times more likely to get addicted to heroin by age 24.
"Christie is actually worse than Jeff Sessions when it comes to cannabis," said Bridgewater, a Trenton, New Jersey, resident representing the Cannabis Cultural Association in the suit. In 2016, he and two other veterans convinced the State Assembly to add PTSD to New Jersey's medical marijuana coverage.
"Christie hates cannabis. The only reason he signed on with adding PTSD was because those veteran suicide numbers started coming out," says Bridgewater, a father of two. "It was like, you better damn well sign this thing."
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