Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Deschedule Cannabis Now: Combat Veteran Battles Jeff Sessions In Court

“My job was to seek and destroy the enemy and essentially neutralize or kill them… I basically became a war machine and had to detach… I did a lot of fighting, I lost friends, I endured what I had to and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, but war changes you. You become emotionless, ice cold, so with combat I just turned into something else.” And so began the stirrings of PTSD in Jose Belen, one of the plaintiffs suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions in order to deschedule cannabis.

Belen is a member of what he calls “The Justice League.” Not only because there are five plaintiffs, but because as Belen puts it, “we’re all coming for justice.” Along with Belen is twelve-year-old Alexis Bortell who suffers from epilepsy, Marvin Washington – a former Super Bowl champion, a 6-year-old child who is on hospice and a New York non profit called the Cannabis Culture Association.

They are represented by a set of five lawyers in a league of their own as well. The notorious attorneys Joseph A. Bondy, Michael Hiller, Lauren Rudick, Fatima Afia and David C. Holland are all on the case. Holland describes their collaboration as thus, “[We] met during several meetings of the New York Cannabis Bar Association where we discussed putting together such a challenge. We are all litigators with various backgrounds and interests as it pertains to the legalization of cannabis.”

Holland’s own interest began in 2004 when he began what would be a 12-year collaboration with the late Michael Kennedy, Esq. representing High Times Magazine and serving as legal advocates to NORML. Holland has participated directly and indirectly in several potential and actual litigation challenges to the Schedule I status of marijuana and sees this as a formidable challenge to declare the CSA’s designation of marijuana unconstitutional.

Belen likes to use the following analogy regarding coming back from the battlefield, “You get put into combat and you become a lion, you’re in the jungle warfare, kill or be killed type of thing, so it’s like taking a lion out of the jungle literally and trying to put him in a city.” When he came home there was no place for a warring lion’s mentality. He suffered from nightmares, combat withdrawal, mood swings, anger, depression and over a decade of suicidal thoughts that too often came too close to fruition.

Photo by Kevin Schumacher

Five years ago, Belen’s wife Danielle was forced to write him a letter stating that she’d do anything in her power to help him, but that the constant threat of suicide was her limit. They went out to dinner that night and decided to give the VA another try. Belen’s initial experience with the VA had not been positive, riddled with pills that held side effects that just drove him closer to the edge. The second time around proved more helpful, but again they pressed the pills and again the Belens had to wean Jose off of them. Luckily, Belen had been using marijuana intermittently since his return home and knew that when he used it he found relief, but even that relief came with a price tag.

“I didn’t want to ruin my honorable career with a police record,” said Belen, “because I’m using medicine that helps me rather than the pills I’m flushing down the toilet. Over the last 13 and a half years it’s been intermittent, because I had a corporate career and was one of the number one insurance professionals in America. I was torn. I’m an honorable citizen, but I’m a criminal. Simply put, [cannabis] allows me to function, to find my smile again, to tap into that 19 year old pre-combat soldier individual person and allows me to interact with my family better. It’s just a complete turnaround.”

On February 14 they took their case to the courts. Presiding Judge Hellerstein expressed exasperation with the Government’s persistence in the claim that there is no valid medical use for marijuana, according to Holland, who went on to say, “Judge Hellerstein emphatically stated that the plaintiffs themselves were proof that cannabis works for them as they are alive and enjoying a quality of life not experienced before medical cannabis usage.”

Holland found many positive aspects to the appearance and said the next steps, though unclear until the Judge rules on a motion to dismiss, include, “If the motion is denied in its entirety then the court will set up a discovery schedule where both sides obtain and build their evidence and proceed towards trial. The Court could grant the motion to dismiss which would terminate Plaintiffs case and surely we will take the matter up on appeal. Or last, the Court could create a hybrid dismissing some things and permitting other claims to move forward towards trial. Given some of the discussion in court I am of the belief that the third scenario is most likely and we will see what comes next with the decision.”

In the meantime, the Belens will continue to work on Mission Zero, their own fight to bring the veteran suicide epidemic to a halt and to show veterans that, as Danielle Belen emphatically declared, “Pharmaceuticals are NOT the only option.”


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