Pot-users want judge to declare marijuana safe under U.S. law
NEW YORK » Army veteran Jose Belen says the horrors of the Iraq War left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the drug that helped him cope best with the symptoms was one his Veterans Affairs doctors could not legally prescribe: marijuana.
“Once I did use cannabis, immediately I felt the relief,” said Belen, who is now working with other medical marijuana users to mount a long-shot court challenge to federal laws criminalizing the drug.
The 35-year-old, married father of two is one of five plaintiffs in a lawsuit claiming that the government’s decision to classify marijuana as dangerous is irrational, unconstitutional and motivated by politics, not hard science.
A government lawyer argued Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in New York that the case should be dismissed, citing precedents in which judges upheld the constitutionality of existing marijuana laws.
The government also is arguing that the plaintiffs have not petitioned the Drug Enforcement Agency to reclassify marijuana.
“Any person can submit a petition to the DEA,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Dolinger said.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers said the administrative process takes an average of nine years.
The suit originally was filed in July as a growing number of states broke with the federal government and declared marijuana to be legal. Thirty have now legalized it in some fashion, including six for recreational use.
The lawsuit challenges the listing of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, a category that includes heroin and LSD. The federal government says drugs under the classification have no accepted medical use and cannot legally be prescribed.
The lawsuit names the Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the DEA as defendants.
The other plaintiffs include:
Former NFL player Marvin Washington, the cofounder of a company that sells hemp-based sports performance products;
A nonprofit organization called the Cannabis Cultural Association that helps minorities benefit from the marijuana industry in states where it is legal;
Twelve-year-old Alexis Bortell, who takes marijuana to control epilepsy, and 7-year-old Jagger Cotte, who uses marijuana to treat a severe neurological disorder called Leigh’s syndrome.
Hellerstein, who reserved judgment on the motion to dismiss the case, evinced sympathy for the plaintiffs’ claims that medical marijuana has helped them.
“How could anyone say that your clients’ lives have not been saved by marijuana?” Hellerstein asked Michael Hiller, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
But Hellerstein appeared to take the government’s argument that the plaintiffs should petition the DEA seriously.
“When agencies are set up to do the very thing that you want me to do, the right thing to do is defer to the agency,” he said.
Medical research on marijuana has been sharply constrained by federal law. The American Psychiatric Association says there’s not enough evidence to support using marijuana to treat PTSD.
Maurice Evans, left, Blake Hunt, center, and Angel Martinez leave the federal court after attending a hearing, Wednesday in New York. The three attended to show their support for a lawsuit that claims the government’s decision to classify marijuana as dangerous is irrational, unconstitutional and motivated by politics, not hard science. Judge Alvin Hellerstein has indicated that he is sympathetic to some patients who use cannabis to treat medical conditions.
Iraq war veteran Jose Belen, who takes marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, poses in front of federal court, Tuesday in New York. Belen is one of five plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging federal marijuana laws. He was set to appear in a New York courtroom on Wednesday for arguments in a lawsuit that claims classifying marijuana as a dangerous drug is irrational and unconstitutional.