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.
The day after the United States Senate approved the FY2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) Appropriations Bill, which includes language to allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana in states where it is legal, a group of veterans marched to the White House to lobby for the issue and raise awareness of the dangers of prescription medications.
A few weeks ago, a coalition of United States veterans called Weed for Warriors announced that they had plans for a powerful demonstration regarding veterans suffering from pharmaceutical addiction and their need for alternative medicines. Those plans came to fruition on Veterans Day.
The group started marching at D.C.’s Veterans Affairs Headquarters, and walked approximately 1.3 miles down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. Once in front the of White House, they dumped a large box of empty pill bottles onto the sidewalk.
The pill bottles were collected from veterans across the country “whose sacrifices did not end on the battlefield.” They symbolize the thousands of veterans suffering from conditions like PTSD, anxiety, pain and depression, who are overprescribed opiates and other pharmaceutical medications that often come with severe side effects and high risk of addiction or abuse. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that the opiod overdose mortality rates in states where medical marijuana has been legalized were significantly lower, suggesting that the use of cannabis an curb opiod overdose deaths by 25 percent.
The only statistics available on the subject show that more than 8,000 veterans commit suicide each year — that’s about 22 per day or one every 65 minutes. Pharmaceuticals are believed to play a large role in this staggering number.
Research has shown cannabis to be helpful in the treatment of several conditions frequently suffered by veterans, such as traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, neuropathic pain, insomnia. A 2014 study, for example, revealed that more than 75 percent of participants suffering from PTSD experienced less severe symptoms when using cannabis.
Two members of Weed for Warriors, Jose Martinez and Kevin Richardson, have publicly shared their stories about struggling with addiction to pain pills and how negatively it affected their lives. For example, Martinez explained,
“Being on pills I hated the world. My struggle with opiates, I tried to commit suicide every day. I took so many pills I thought I’d never wake up again. We went and fought for our country. We just want to be free to medicate the way that we choose to.”
Weed for Warriors is not the only group shedding light on this subject. A United States Marine named Mike Whiter uses powerful photographs in a project he calls “Operation Overmed” to demonstrate the irrationality of denying veterans the right to choose cannabis therapy over pharmaceutical alternatives when studies show that cannabis can often provide more effective relief without the adverse side effects.
“I threw away my pills and my quality of life is better than it has been in years.”
Said Whiter, who has been prescribed more than 40 different pharmaceutical medications to treat symptoms of severe PTSD and chronic pain.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) currently prohibits it’s physicians from even so much as discussing medical cannabis with their military patients, let alone recommending it or participating in medical marijuana programs in legal states. The VA is the only federal healthcare program that prohibits this. Medicaid, Medicare, and CHIP patients are permitted to talk to their physicians about medical marijuana, but veterans are denied the same right.
The FY2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) Appropriations Bill would change that, should it ever be fully approved, by authorizing VA health care providers to recommend and discuss medical cannabis in states where it is legal. Similar legislation was vetoed by Congress in April, but supporters are hoping lawmakers have listened more carefully to their constituents since that vote.
photo credit: Fox5dc
In a rare bipartisan move this week, members of Congress introduced legislation to authorize Veteran’s Administration doctors to discuss and recommend medical marijuana to veterans. Currently banned from doing so, even in states where medical or recreational use of the drug is legal, advocates are cheering for this proposed prescription for change known as the Veterans Equal Access Act.
Last year, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced similar legislation which failed to get a hearing, much less a floor vote. With five Republicans and three other Democrats co-sponsoring this year’s bill, things may well prove different this time around. In a released statement Rep. Blumenauer proclaimed,
“Our antiquated drug laws must catch up with the real suffering of so many of our veterans. This is now a moral cause and a matter of supreme urgency.”
” It is unconscionable that a VA doctor cannot offer a full range of treatments, including medical marijuana, which in many cases has been shown to have worked, to an American veteran who fought valiantly for our country. Conscience dictates that we not coldly ignore these desperate men and women, and that we remove government from its paternalistic stance between patient and doctor.”
Before rushing out to buy a bong or stock up on rolling papers, veterans should remember that this is the same Congress that recently overruled 70 percent of the voters in our nation’s capital who voted to get high legally.
One thing is certain however, returning veterans have a problem with drugs, and a serious problem at that. Addiction rates to much more lethal, serious drugs are soaring as the number of veterans found dead from an opiate overdose is almost double the national average. Even this Congress, clueless as they often appear, is well aware of the mounting challenges faced by beleaguered troops weary from years of war. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), divorce, suicide and homelessness are all on the rise among returning veterans.
Everyone agrees something must be done, but what? Can legalized cannabis cure some of these ills, reduce others’ symptoms and pain, possibly even save lives? It’s high time we find out. Reams of white paper studies would suggest so. Even law enforcement officials admit in the states where legalization has occurred, crime rates are down, sales to minors are virtually non-existent and none of the doomsday scenarios have yet proven true.
Finding ways to get these soldiers out of back alleys and away from prescription pill mills should be a national priority. Adequate housing and gainful employment can offer little to someone in the throws of addiction. These men and women fought bravely for our freedom and security. Isn’t it time we arm their caregivers with the tools and resources available to secure their freedom from drug dependence and suffering? While this ought to be a no-brainer piece of legislation, its fate, like too many of our vets, remains far from certain.
Budget-minded legislators should at least ask themselves, if for no other reason, can medical marijuana reduce the spiraling cost of care for returning veterans? If that doesn’t whet their appetite for savings maybe they should consider toking a roll call of an entirely different sort.
photo credit: pointsadhs
Recreational marijuana use for adults has been legal in Colorado for almost one full year now, and with legalization has come an increase in jobs, tax revenue, and cannabis friendly activities. One local Denver artist, Heidi Keyes (pictured below), has found a therapeutic niche in a cannabis friendly painting class that many United States veterans are finding to be helpful in treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The Puff Pass Paint classes are similar to any of the popular “Canvas and Cocktails” painting classes where participants sip on alcoholic beverages while painting on canvas, only participants use cannabis here instead. In order to avoid any legal complications, Keyes, holds classes at her private home studio, and all attendees must be aged 21 years or older. Each class is BYOC (bring your own cannabis), and lasts about 2 hours. A schedule can be found on the class website, and tickets can be purchased there as well.
Although this class is not exclusively for former military personnel, many veterans have found Keyes classes as a beneficial, therapeutic outlet. One such Veteran, Sean Azzariti, told 7 News Denver that using cannabis has allowed him to discontinue taking handfuls of pharmaceuticals on a daily basis, and that the combination of marijuana and painting has “helped tremendously” in terms of treating his PTSD symptoms.
Keyes told 7 News Denver that this kind of atypical style of therapy for veterans was what inspired her to begin the Puff Pass Paint classes in the first place. She explained,
“I wanted to be able to do something where I was giving back to the community as well.”
Keyes has received great praise for her cannabis friendly painting sessions, and classes fill up quickly. Reserve your seat for 1 of only 3 remaining classes in December before spots run out.
photo credit: Facebook/Leslie Simon, Heidi Keyes Art