After spending nearly a decade behind bars for selling a small amount of marijuana, Derek Harris is finally going to be free to reunite with his loved ones.
Who is Derek Harris?
Derek Harris is a military veteran who served the United States during Operation Desert Storm. According to his family, when Harris returned home from overseas, he was a different man than the one who left to fight for his country. Like many others, after his time in the Gulf War, Harris developed a substance abuse problem. His issues with drugs lead to a series of petty offenses, including theft of property under $500 and distribution of cocaine. These incidents culminated in 2008, when Harris was arrested in Louisiana for selling a police officer .69 grams of cannabis.
Initially, Harris was convicted and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, in 2012 prosecutors argued that Harris should be resentenced under the Habitual Offenders Law. Judge Durwood Conque of Louisiana agreed and sentenced Harris to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His court-appointed Public Defender made no attempt to appeal this ruling.
“Nothing that he did deserved life without the possibility of parole,” Harris’s older brother Antoine Harris told The Appeal during a phone interview.
While incarcerated, Harris attempted to challenge the excessiveness of the decision, and argued that he had not received adequate legal representation. In 2013, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal ruled against Harris, but Judge Sylvia Cooks disagreed.
“I believe it is unconscionable to impose a life-sentence-without-benefit upon this Defendant who served his country on the field of battle and returned home to find his country offered him no help for his drug addiction problem. It is an incomprehensible, needless, tragic waste of a human life for the sake of slavish adherence to the technicalities of law.” Judge Cooks wrote.
Harris’ new attorney, Cormac Boyle, once again presented the argument that Harris received ineffective legal assistance during his post-conviction sentencing. This time, the Supreme Court of Louisiana agreed that his sentence was too harsh.
Justice Wiemer wrote that, in his opinion, Harris “developed a substance abuse problem after returning from his honorable military service in Desert Storm, and his prior offenses were nonviolent and related to his untreated dependency on drugs.”
Wiemer also noted that the original trial judge said of Harris that he was “not a drug kingpin” and didn’t fit what they thought of “as a drug dealer, so far as I can tell.”
A new sentence of nine years time served was handed down to Harris, though the exact date of his actual release has yet to be determined—Boyle hopes to have him freed soon.
Cormac Boyle told CNN that Harris is looking forward to being a free man, and that he plans on relocating to Louisville after his release to be closer to his family in Kentucky. He’s excited to meet his nephews. It’s been nearly a decade since Derek and his brother Antoine have seen one another in person.
A key U.S. Senate panel voted on Thursday to allow doctors with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to issue medical marijuana recommendations to military veterans.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the amendment, offered by Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), on a voice vote.
The measure “simply allows veterans to discuss that option [medical cannabis] with their VA doc or physician,” Daines said during a brief debate.
Merkley added that it is an “incredible inconvenience for veterans to be told they have to seek out a whole new medical system” to get cannabis recommendations.
The move comes one day after the House Rules Committee blocked floor votes on several amendments concerning medical cannabis access for veterans.
In past years, previous versions of the cannabis recommendation measure have been approved by the full House and Senate, but have never been enacted into law. The new amendment approved by senators also protects veterans from being denied VA services as a result of their participation in a state medical marijuana program.
Under current VA internal policy, government physicians are barred from filling out medical cannabis recommendations for veterans, even in states where it is legal.
If the measure approved by senators on Thursday is included in final Fiscal Year 2019 spending legislation for the VA, the department would no longer be able to enforce its ban on medical marijuana recommendations.
In a press release about the Appropriations Committee vote, Daines said, “Veterans should not be discriminated against when they seek care at the VA. They deserve access to the treatment that best suits their medical needs, just like they would receive at a non-VA clinic.”
Read the full text of the veterans cannabis amendment:
SEC. 249. None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Veterans Affairs in this Act may be used in a manner that would—
(1) interfere with the ability of a veteran to participate in a medicinal marijuana program approved by a State;
(2) deny any services from the Department to a veteran who is participating in such a program; or
(3) limit or interfere with the ability of a health care provider of the Department to make appropriate recommendations, fill out forms, or take steps to comply with such a program.
See the original article published on Marijuana Moment below:
Senators Approve Medical Marijuana For Military Veterans
On Thursday, April 30, Congress defeated a bill that would have allowed Veterans Administration (VA) doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for military veterans. Currently, it is against policy for VA doctors to complete the necessary documentation to allow a veteran to qualify for medical cannabis — even for vets who reside in states where medical or recreational marijuana is legal.
The Veterans Equal Access Act had bi-partisan support and was co-sponsored by three Democrats and five Republicans. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to prevent it from being defeated by only three votes (213 against, 210 for).
In response to the results, Dan Riffle, the Federal Policy Director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in Washington, D.C. optimistically Tweeted:
“Last year VA vote lost 195-221. This year it was 210-213. Sucks to lose, but gotta recognize progress. Onward…”
The unfortunate aspect of these results is that 213 members of Congress are against helping the nation’s veterans gain relief from conditions obtained while serving their country — simply because the source of that relief is a stigmatized and embattled plant. Veterans suffering from extreme post traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, depression, and other ailments, many of whom could gain considerable relief from medical cannabis, will get no help from the Veterans Administration or Congress.
According to the MPP, “Approximately 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or PTSD.” The lobbying group also reported that, due largely to these conditions, the suicide rate of veterans is 50 percent higher than the national average.
According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, states that have legalized medical marijuana have noticed a decrease in suicide rates. Despite this evidence, Congress has decided to put politics and fear above the needs of the soldiers who have made significant sacrifices for the nation.
It’s too soon to say if the bill will be reintroduced again by its sponsors. One thing is certain, however: As Congress drags its feet and refuses to face the reality of the medical efficacy of cannabis, states will continue to implement medical marijuana programs. Sadly, it appears that, for the time being, soldiers who gain relief from cannabis will do so not with help from their VA doctor, but instead via the black market or in a state that has legalized it.