Doctors with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can’t prescribe medical marijuana, but they can discuss it. Congress is considering bills allowing the VA to research the possible benefits of medical marijuana, but the VA opposes them.
Confused? You’re not alone. The VA is doing a delicate balancing act, trying to provide medical care for veterans while adhering to federal law that conflicts with state statutes. In the middle, veterans are left scratching their heads. Even though the VA lifted former constraints regarding medical marijuana use by patients, old fears and stigmas linger.
VA assurance: No repercussions
Vets worry that medical marijuana use will impact their care. So, what’s the real story? We answer your questions.
Can I talk to my VA health care providers about medical marijuana use?
Yes. In fact, the VA states that veterans are “encouraged to discuss marijuana use with their VA providers.” A summary of VA guidelines regarding patients participating in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs, such as Pennsylvania’s, notes that doctors and other health care professionals can help patients sort through their options, consider the role of medical marijuana, and “adjust treatment plans as necessary.” However, the actual directive seems more closely targeted at discussions of how medical marijuana “may relate to the Veterans participation in other clinical activities,” such as possible interaction with other medications and its impact on overall care for conditions including pain management, PTSD, and substance use disorder.
Can I be denied VA benefits for using marijuana?
No. This is where things get sticky. “The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is required to follow all federal laws including those regarding marijuana,” states the VA. “As long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule I VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist Veterans to obtain it.” In addition, VA pharmacies cannot dispense medical marijuana.
Will the VA pay for medical marijuana prescriptions?
Can my VA clinicians help with the paperwork needed to participate state medical marijuana programs?
Can I carry or use medical marijuana on VA grounds?
No. Federal laws apply here, not state laws. Even if authorized for medical purposes, possession is subject to prosecution under the Controlled Substances Act.
Will medical marijuana use go on my VA medical record?
Yes, if you report it to VA clinical staff. It’s entered into the medical record’s “non-VA/herbal/Over the Counter medication” section. Discussions of medical marijuana are documented in progress notes “and considered in the development or modification of the treatment plan.” As part of the veteran’s medical record, the information is officially confidential and protected under patient privacy laws.
Veterans demand assurances
Although VA guidelines say that VA scientists may research – “under regulatory approval” — marijuana benefits, risks, and potential for abuse, veterans’ groups are clamoring for clarification. They want answers into the possible power of medical marijuana to ease chronic pain and minimize the effects of PTSD. Even leading presidential candidates are proposing plans to lift restrictions on access and research.
“If there’s a viable medical treatment available to civilians, it’s not just inappropriate, it’s patently unjust that veterans don’t have access to it,” said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Executive Vice President Lindsay Rodman.
Several bills in Congress would compel the VA to:
- Research the safety and efficacy of medicinal cannabis for veterans dealing with PTSD and chronic pain.
- Write a federal law forbidding the VA from denying benefits to participants in state-approved medical marijuana programs.
- Allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana in states where it’s legal.
The VA opposes all three measures. The House Veterans Affairs Committee “can make strong proposals for us to move forward with recommendations of filling out forms and such but, in the end, we need to go back to DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) and DOJ (Justice Department) for their opinion,” Larry Mole, the VA’s chief consultant for population health, said at a hearing. “I’ve not seen anything to suggest their opinion will change.”
Veterans’ groups report that some patients still receive conflicting messages, but the VA is clear that participation in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs must not negatively impact care.
Pennsylvanians living with 21 serious medical conditions, including PTSD, chronic pain, and some opioid use disorders, can seek approval from state-registered physicians and apply for medical marijuana ID cards. With the card in hand, veterans can buy medical marijuana at licensed dispensaries – and freely discuss medical marijuana as a treatment option with their VA clinicians.