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PTSD and the Medical Marijuana Loophole

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    PTSD and the Medical Marijuana Loophole

    NBC 6's Dan Krauth speaks with an Army veteran who struggled with PTSD after serving more than a year in Iraq.

    (Published Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018)

    Every time Jose Belen drives under an overpass on I-95, he flinches. When he hears his young daughter cry, he sometimes cringes and has to walk away.

    He says both are strong reminders of the enemy fire and screams of dying children he experienced while patrolling the streets of Baghdad while serving in the Army.

    "You're going to war, you're never going to come out the same," said Belen.

    Army veteran Jose Belen and his wife Danielle opened a box of memories of his time in service.

    Inside his Parkland home, he sat on his couch and sorted through a box of memories he has never shared with his wife Danielle – until now.

    "I haven't gone through this stuff in years," said the former Army combat veteran. "We had to go hunt some bad people."

    He pulled out an Iraqi flag that he kept folded inside his helmet, pictures of friends he fought beside and a welcome home sign his family made for his return. He spent more than a year serving in Iraq.

    Photo credit: Jose Belen

    Belen's unit was part of the invasion of Baghdad in 2003. He says his best friend was killed and he witnessed children die.

    "I couldn't sleep but that was the norm," he said. "I was angry, but I was always angry, you're angry in war. I was just being me."

    Photo credit: Jose Belen

    Once he was back home, doctors diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

    "You don't break, that's the problem," Belen said.

    Belen says he went to the local Veterans Affairs hospital where he was prescribed medication.

    But he said the medications made him feel more depressed.

    “It’s like, if this is the rest of my life, I don’t want to be here,” he said.

    He says after having thoughts of suicide, he turned to medical marijuana for help.

    Since medical marijuana is banned federally, it’s not something that’s offered through Veterans Affairs.

    It’s a drug he has chosen to pay for out of pocket 

    "It allows me to function," he said. "It allows me to have this conversation without having intrusive thoughts or anger and having scatter brain. It allows me to be the father that I was meant to be."

    Jose Belen pictured with his wife Danielle and two children
    Photo credit: Jose Belen

    His wife says the drug has changed both of their lives.

    "I look at him before and I look at him now and I, 100 percent, would prefer him the way he is now," said Danielle Belen.

    PTSD is one of ten conditions that makes patients eligible for medical marijuana in Florida. The list also includes cancer, epilepsy, ALS, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Crohn's Disease, MS and Parkinson's Disease.

    But the NBC 6 Investigators talked to two doctors who prescribe marijuana to close to 2,000 patients combined. They said the number one reason people ask for a prescription is for pain.

    But pain is not on the list of the ten approved conditions.

    Florida lawmakers added a clause to the law stating cannabis can also be prescribed for conditions that are "comparable" to conditions like cancer and Crohn's Disease. The clause opened up medical marijuana to thousands more people.

    Pain management doctor Michelle Weiner says she believes medical marijuana is often a safer alternative to other prescription drugs.

    "It's a safer profile, it's a better choice because the patient isn't going to abuse it to the point that they're dying," said Dr. Weiner.

    As for Belen, he says of the more than 150,000 patients on the drug now in Florida, the group he's concerned most about is veterans.

    He started a nonprofit hoping to get medical marijuana access to more people like him.

    "What's changed in me is that I feel I have a purpose," he said. "There are too many veterans committing suicide."

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