As more states consider authorizing the medical use of marijuana, a growing number of voices among the veteran community urge the Department of Veterans Affairs to reconsider VA policy on medical cannabis.
These voices include Representative Phil Roe (R) of Tennessee and Representative Tim Walz (D) of Minnesota, who introduced House Resolution 5520, The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018.
That bill proposed to authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to do medical marijuana research.
Specifically, Congress.gov says the bill, “authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct and support research on the efficacy and safety of certain forms of cannabis and cannabis delivery for veterans enrolled in the VA health care system diagnosed with conditions such as chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder.”
H.R. 5520 died in Congress, but the fact that a bipartisan effort to create this policy happened at all is an indicator that American society is ready to discuss an end to the prohibition of cannabis, or at a minimum that it’s time to approve marijuana and hemp plant derivatives such as Cannabidiol (aka CBD) for use as medicine.
Another measure, known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) was actually able to pass the House Judiciary Committee on November 20, 2019. It was subsequently due to appear as part of a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in January 2020.
The MORE Act has not been signed into law at press time, but the significance of the Act and its’ passage through Congress shouldn’t be underestimated; the MORE act does many things at once including removal of cannabis from The Controlled Substance Act as a Schedule 1 Controlled Substances rosters as a federally-regulated substance.
“Schedule 1” means a substance listed on that schedule is thought by the government to have no medical value coupled with a high potential for misuse. The MORE Act has other effects on American law and adds a taxation element; MORE prevents denial of public benefits to those who use cannabis.
That includes those who live in public housing. It also prevents discrimination (for cannabis use) against those who would apply for citizenship or other immigration statues. MORE also seeks to establish a five percent tax to provide money for community reinvestment.
Official Defense Department Policy On Marijuana
The United States Department of Defense, which is responsible for policy for the United States Military, is NOT part of this discussion about medical marijuana. VA policy on the use of cannabis by the veteran population is not connected with the official DoD policies.
The Department of Defense maintains its’ marijuana prohibition on currently serving military members, and military recruiters are required to use discretion when interviewing potential new recruits about possible drug use prior to military service.
At one time, the recreational use of marijuana or its’ derivatives could be grounds for rejecting a new recruit. However, recruiters do not have to bar the enlistment of those with minor pot experimentation at the time of this writing. Instead, the recruiter may, at his or her discretion, apply for a waiver for such recruits.
All new recruits are advised that there is a zero tolerance for any illegal substance abuse issues in the military. Those who test positive for illegal drugs or illegally used prescription drugs are subject to punishment and possible discharge from the military.
Department Of Veterans Affairs Policy On Medical Marijuana
The issues facing veterans who use pot while seeking treatment from the VA are more complex.
Those who use marijuana to relieve symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other service-connected medical issues may be afraid to discuss this with a VA care provider out of fear that their VA benefits may be in jeopardy for doing so.
What is the reality? The VA official site states that any illegal substance on the federal level is NOT permitted to be used, recommended, prescribed, or endorsed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, up to and including the recommendation that veterans use pot to alleviate symptoms or pain.
The VA sources its controlled substances list from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and at the time of this writing cannabis is still on FDA Schedule 1 Controlled Substances.
Should the MORE Act pass into law, that situation would change, theoretically opening a greater conversation about, and potential recommendations of, medical cannabis by Department of Veterans Affairs medical providers.
But can the VA simply begin recommending pot to VA patients if MORE becomes law?
Likely not overnight. The VA may be directed by a Senate version of the bill to take steps in a prescribed fashion. It would not be surprising to learn that the final version of the bill includes a phased introduction to medical cannabis for VA patients.
Military members should not assume that passage of any marijuana legalization or decriminalization at the federal level gives them permission to use cannabis products. In the same way military leadership have the power to ban non-controlled substances such as Spice, Salvia Divinorum, bath salts, and others through an off-limits order, cannabis may also be subject to such treatment even if legal.
Under the policies active at the time of this writing, any substance listed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule One controlled substance are subject to this prohibition at the VA level.
Veterans Will Not Lose VA Benefits For Discussing Medical Marijuana With VA Care Providers
The VA official site makes it clear that veterans who use cannabis, pot, 420, etc… are not in danger of losing VA benefits:
Veteran participation in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services. VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with Veterans as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary.
It is safe for veterans to discuss marijuana use with VA staff. Veterans do not need to be concerned with or anticipate punitive measures as a result of informing VA staff of pot use. It is very important to note that this applies to retired or separated military members only.
Currently serving troops including members of the Guard/Reserve are still subject to DoD policy on drug use, not VA policy.
Why is this policy important? VA caregivers need to make decisions about a veteran’s continued healthcare in an informed way, including the patient’s lifestyle choices, possible drug interactions with alcohol, cannabis, or other substances, etc.
A doctor who knows the veteran’s marijuana use may or may not advise an adjusted course of treatment depending on circumstances.
Specific VA Policy Regarding The Discussion Of Medical Marijuana Use With Patients
The VA official site has a list of rules, information, and reassurances for veterans concerned about being forthright about their medical pot use with a VA caregiver. Specifically:
- Veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use.
- Veterans are encouraged to discuss marijuana use with their VA providers.
- VA health care providers will record marijuana use in the Veteran’s VA medical record in order to have the information available in treatment planning. As with all clinical information, this is part of the confidential medical record and protected under patient privacy and confidentiality laws and regulations.
- VA clinicians may not recommend medical marijuana.
- VA clinicians may not prescribe products containing Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), Cannabidiol (CBD), or any other cannabinoids.
VA Medical Marijuana Policies For State-Level MMJ Card/Medical Cannabis Card Approval
In states where medical marijuana is approved, some kind of screening process is usually required in order to allow patients to legally buy pot from a state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary. In the State of Illinois, for example, the applicant must be screened for any one of a list of symptoms including certain types of chronic pain, PTSD, and debilitating conditions such as fibromyalgia.
Illinois requires the applicant to have a physician’s approval for marijuana, and many veterans would naturally turn to their VA caregiver for this certification. However, VA policy does not permit VA doctors or care providers to participate in this process in any way including help with the paperwork required by the state for MMJ cards; VA patients would need to use a non-VA facility to be certified by a clinician.
VA Policy On Medical Marijuana Prescriptions
The term “prescription” is used loosely here; many states do not require a prescription for medical cannabis per se, and patients who use legal medical pot are often “authorized” to possess cannabis instead. In any case, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not permit VA clinics or staff to prescribe or fill prescriptions for medical marijuana.
The VA will not pay for such prescriptions regardless of the source and VA rules forbid the use or possession of pot on any VA facility.
VA Employment Policies For Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana
The Department of Veterans Affairs, like all federal agencies, observes the Food and Drug Administration prohibition on marijuana as it is understood at the time of this writing.
Because marijuana is still classified as a Schedule One controlled substance, veterans who use medical marijuana would technically not be eligible for VA employment or would be rendered ineligible should they fail to pass a drug test issued as a condition of employment or as a condition of continued employment.
This may be true of both marijuana and marijuana derivatives such as cannabidiol, which are themselves not illegal but may cause a positive result for marijuana on a drug test.
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