Jose Belen spent his early 20s serving in one of the military’s severest roles—as a field artillery soldier in Baghdad. His job was to “find and kill the enemy,” and death was a reality he learned to accept. Fourteen months of warfare left him “bled dry” of his emotions and his smile. He watched his best friend die, and he would look up at the sky every day to say, “God, it’s OK if you take me.”
But those weren’t the scariest moments of his life.
Instead, the most frightening moments came when the side effects kicked in from two powerful pills the Department of Veteran Affairs gave him for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—just one chapter of a long period of trial and error for his turmoil.
The pills, venlafaxine and nortriptyline, turned him into “basically the Incredible Hulk,” the 35-year-old told Newsweek last week from his home in Orlando, Florida. He scared his wife and kids, and he was furious. “I nearly snapped,” he said.
That treatment was a breaking point. And it turned out that after an assortment of medications his VA doctor prescribed to him, the one that finally worked was one the VA couldn’t prescribe: medical marijuana.
On February 14, after battling PTSD for 13 and a half years, the combat veteran and married father of two will be taking the U.S. government to court over the drug. He’s one of five plaintiffs, including a 12-year-old with epilepsy, suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions over medical marijuana, alleging that the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which deems marijuana illegal, is unconstitutional.
In a 98-page complaint, the prosecution alleges, among other things, that the CSA limits patients’ travels within the U.S. and blocks them from entering government buildings; that it discriminates against black people, who are more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white people, infringing on their rights to due process; and that marijuana, because it has medical benefits, does not belong on the same list of federally controlled substances as drugs like LSD and heroin.
“Cannabis, for me, has allowed me to find the smile that I lost the day I got into combat,” Belen said. “I was somebody different before I crossed into Iraq. It’s not about getting high. It’s about me being able to have eight hours of sleep without a nightmare.”
The nightmares, aggression and anxiety Belen once faced are part of an issue that resonates with millions of veterans in the U.S.
Every day, 20 veterans commit suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. (It’s unclear how many of these are tied to PTSD or military service.)Between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD. As things stand, the VA, the source of health care for 9 million veterans, is not allowed to recommend medical marijuana to patients even though several states have legally declared the drug a treatment for PTSD.
And while the VA recently tweaked its policy to say that veterans are encouraged to “discuss” medical marijuana with their providers and that they won’t be denied treatment if they use it, the agency released a letter to Congress in January saying it would not study the effects of medical marijuana on PTSD or chronic pain.
Raphael Bones, a physician in Orlando and a Navy veteran himself, told Newsweek that cannabis helps his patients’ PTSD better than any other medication he’s tried with them. “Especially to sleep better, without nightmares and even without night terrors,” he said. “Vets that use cannabis do not relive their war experience, they do not have flashbacks.”
But despite research and endless personal testimonies, Sessions has shown no willingness to shift his views on marijuana, maintaining his skepticism about its medical benefits. At a Senate hearing last year, he said that he’d look at analyses of the drug’s medical benefits but was not optimistic. He recently claimed that the opioid crisis “is starting with marijuana and other drugs.” The Justice Department declined to comment on this case.
President Donald Trump has not been as vocal an opponent to marijuana. He has also voiced commitment to working on the issues of veteran suicide and PTSD, saying in October, “You know, when you hear the 22 suicides a day, it’s a big part of your question, but when you hear the 22 suicides a day, that should never be. That should never be. So we’re going to be addressing that very strongly.”
But this isn’t a political battle for Belen—he said he looks at Trump like he would any other commander in chief, and as he did with George W. Bush, who was president when he went to war. But if he could tell Trump and Sessions one thing, he’d say, “As the leaders of this country, you know you’re wrong.”
He continued, in a direct address to the current man in the White House, “I went to war for [the president], and I’d do it again. All I’m asking of you is to please help us fight the war we are losing every day.”
Oral arguments for the case begin Wednesday in New York, and if it moves forward, Belen’s lawyer, Joseph Bondy, said others with compelling cases have indicated that they will step forward to join the suit.
“It goes past the lawsuit,” Belen said. “The greater calling is to end veteran suicide.”