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Veterans look to Congress for legal cannabis but roadblocks remain

DREW TAYLOR/UNSPLASH

By SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE | | Published: January 21, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Although a feisty new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives appears ready to move on federal marijuana legalization, a roadblock in the Senate could foreshadow a showdown in the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Jan. 9, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, introduced the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, which would remove cannabis from its Schedule 1 classification, where the plant has been quarantined since passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Known also as House Bill 420, in a nod and a wink to the coded term for marijuana consumption, "the issue is very serious," stated Blumenauer.

"Our federal marijuana laws are outdated, out of touch and have negatively impacted countless lives. Congress cannot continue to be out of touch with a movement that a growing majority of Americans support."

But a top official with the pro-legalization group, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, offers a bleak assessment.

"Never in history has a Congress been comprised of a more favorable House of Representatives in regards to cannabis reform," stated NORML political director Justin Strekal in an email. "However, given Senator (Mitch) McConnell's longstanding support of the cruel practice of federal marijuana criminalization and his tendency to rule by fiat, it is unlikely that he would allow for even a debate on the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, let alone a vote."

A query to the office of McConnell was returned with an email link to a May 2018 article in The Hill, in which the Senate President announced, "I do not have any plans to endorse the legalization of marijuana."

Sixty-two percent of Americans support legalization, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center poll. But if McConnell fails to act, national attention may pivot to federal court, where two Army veterans diagnosed for post-traumatic stress disorder continue to hound the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Agency for upholding a law they claim is unconstitutional.

"We have two types of people in the Senate — we have The Flintstones, and we have The Jetsons," says Iraq war veteran Leo Bridgewater of Trenton, New Jersey. "Mitch McConnell represents The Flintstones genre. And if HR 420 doesn't go through Mitch, there's still our lawsuit. I can't imagine this is what he really wants. The optics for that are not very good."

Bridgewater and fellow Iraq veteran Jose Belen of Orlando have joined two ailing child plaintiffs and former NFL defensive end Marvin Washington in a legal challenge to marijuana's status as a Schedule 1 drug, which by definition has no medicinal value. Thirty-three states have legalized cannabis in some form, with 10 of those and the District of Columbia allowing marijuana for personal use. More than 2 million Americans are registered medical marijuana users.

Bridgewater and Belen were featured in the Herald-Tribune's "Warriors Rise Up" project last year, which examined the suicide epidemic sweeping the ranks of America's military veterans.

More than 75,000 veterans took their lives between 2005 and 2015. Many former comrades in arms described how prescription drugs dispensed by the Department of Veterans Affairs weren't nearly as effective as marijuana in relieving PTSD anxieties. They said authorized pharmaceuticals could be highly addictive, often contributing to suicidal ideation. Others shared stories of military careers ruined by seeking pain relief from cannabis while still uniform. Because the federal government regards marijuana as more dangerous than cocaine and on par with heroin, VA physicians are unable to prescribe the plant for veterans.

Belen, who shared a grueling tale of his 2016 opioid withdrawal, calls HB 420 "a step in the right direction" and says protracted litigation will only prolong needless suffering. "Veterans are killing themselves 22 times a day, many of whom could be helped by cannabis," he says. "Is this really what our elected officials want?"

In December, Belen traveled to New York, where government and plaintiff lawyers squared off in the U.S. Court of Appeals 2nd Circuit. In Feb. 2018, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit, claiming the plaintiffs had yet to exhaust all administrative remedies. Last month, plaintiff counsel Michael Hiller argued medical marijuana patients like Jagger Cotte — an 8-year-old "medical refugee" who left Texas for Colorado to get cannabis treatment for a life-threatening neurological disorder — can't afford to wait for bureaucracy's slow wheels to turn.

The Court is expected to make a decision later this year.

"I'm a patriot who bled for this land, and I want to see the person next to me prosper, and I want to see parents get the proper medicine for their children. And if I happen to be downrange do you think I care if the people who make those decisions are Republicans or Democrats?" says Belen.

"They can drag this out for years and years if they want to. But we'll take it to the Supreme Court if we have to, and we're not going away."

©2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.
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