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Saturday, December 3, 2016

Before he tried marijuana, he thought of trying suicide.

Heavy drinking hadn’t helped. Nor had various pills prescribed by Veterans Affairs doctors. He was still angry, still depressed, still could not sleep.

But he found that marijuana helped. It took the anger and depression away. It took the sleeplessness away. Most of all, it took the 11-year-old boy away.

PFC Jared Hunter never knew the boy’s name. He was just some Iraqi kid who liked to hang around the Army base outside Baghdad. “He didn’t really speak English or nothing. He would just kind of follow us around and would point things out or tell us if there was somebody there who shouldn’t have been.” The soldiers adopted him as a mascot. Hunter bought him a soccer ball.

The boy was with the soldiers when they came under fire while patrolling an alley. When the shooting was over, he was dead.

If combat does nothing else, it hardens you to indiscriminate death. “You just learn to deal with it,” says Hunter. “Something like that happens, at that time you just walk on past it and forget about it. Of course, later on,” he adds softly, “it may come up a little bit or something somewhere.”

It came up with a vengeance on Hunter. He’s a 30-year-old Arkansas native living near Daytona Beach who joined the Army in 2003 right out of high school and served two tours. He was discharged with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, a neat, clinical term for night terrors, heart palpitations, rage, and the seductive lure of suicide. Hunter was almost seduced. He says he was sitting there with gun in hand when his father found him.

Finally, a friend suggested something he had never tried: marijuana. He says pot worked like magic. “It calmed the anxiety. I wasn’t having near as many anger problems. … The suicide stuff went away. I didn’t really feel that desperate to do anything like that again. I’ve got a bad back and a bad neck; it relieved any kind of pain that I had. It just helped so tremendously that it was unbelievable. Nightmares. … I could actually go to sleep. I didn’t have insomnia. I wasn’t scared to go to sleep. I could actually lay down and … get a halfway decent night’s rest.”

Marijuana had saved him. Then, last year, police came to his door. He still has no idea who tipped them off. They arrested him and confiscated marijuana plants he says he was growing for his own use. Hunter found himself facing five years in prison. Prosecutors offered a deal: Plead guilty and accept probation. He refused. He didn’t want to be branded a criminal and stripped of his civil rights.

But last week, he accepted a new offer. It requires him to pay court costs and costs of prosecution, amounting to less than $1,000. His record will show not a conviction, but a withhold of adjudication — essentially, a judicial get-out-of-jail-free card that leaves his civil rights intact.

One is glad Hunter’s legal travails have come to such a favorable end. But who’s to say the next person in his position will be as fortunate? More to the point, we should be appalled this sort of thing is even possible, that a veteran can be threatened with prison because he used the only effective treatment for a wound incurred in the service of his country.

That scenario is viscerally offensive — and well worth remembering as America continues the torturous process of reforming its drug laws and drug hypocrisies.

Hunter, meantime, is thinking seriously of moving to Colorado or some other marijuana-friendly state. The problem, he says, is that cold weather causes his physical wounds intense pain. In effect, then, he is required to decide between the well-being of his body and that of his mind.

That’s a shameful choice to impose on a man who damaged both body and mind fighting for his country. And for, you know, freedom.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected])

Photo: Mark via Flickr