With the Veteran’s Equal Access Act sponsored by Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), doctors at the US Department of Veterans Affairs can prescribe medical marijuana to veterans of the military. According to the Congressional Budget Office, even though congress approves medical marijuana for veterans, this won’t have any fiscal impact on the budget.
VA and marijuana
Several states have already approved marijuana use for both recreational and medical purposes. But when it comes to veterans and medical marijuana, things aren’t that simple. Veterans must know that the federal law still classifies marijuana as a “Schedule One Controlled Substance,” which means that the federal government still considers it illegal. Despite the approval of marijuana use in several states, the US Department of Veterans Affairs must still obey the federal laws including laws governing marijuana use.
As long as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies marijuana as Schedule One, VA care providers cannot recommend its use. They aren’t allowed to help veterans obtain marijuana either. The participation of veterans in marijuana programs in their states won’t affect their eligibility for VA services and care. But as a part of the comprehensive care planning, VA providers will talk about the use of marijuana with veterans, then adjust their treatment plans as needed.
Veteran’s Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act
The re-introduction of the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act allows doctors at the US Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in the states that already have medical marijuana programs. At present, 36 states have already established these programs.
Under current law, the veterans’ affairs medical marijuana policy allows doctors to recommend medical marijuana for patients who need to manage pain, except for the VA. But the bill reintroduced by US Senator Tim Kaine will change this current law by expanding the program eligibility to VA hospitals too. The bill will also create a temporary, 5-year safe harbor protection for veterans who use medical marijuana. It will also direct the VA to learn more about how marijuana used for medical purposes will help veterans manage chronic pain more effectively to reduce the risk of opioid abuse.
According to Senator Tim Kaine, the bill will help make sure that veterans can opt for the same medical options as the other citizens in the US. It will remove barriers to take care of the country’s heroes. This is also a great opportunity to explore medical marijuana use further as an effective tool to help veterans manage the pain they feel and potentially reduce the risk of opioid abuse.
The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act has acquired support from several notable organizations including the VoteVets, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Veterans Cannabis Coalition, Minority Veterans of America, Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, Veterans Cannabis Project, NORML, National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), US Pain Foundation, National Cannabis Roundtable, Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Veteran’s Initiative 22, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), Arizona Dispensary Association, Hawai‘i Cannabis Industry Association, and California Cannabis Industry Association.
What does it mean?
There will be no added expenses associated with the move to allow VA doctors to give recommendations for medical cannabis. The reason for this is that VA doctors already talk about different options for treatment with veteran patients while they provide healthcare. This includes conversations about accomplishing medical cannabis prescription documents, which won’t be a radical departure from the current policies.
The VA encourages doctors to talk about the use of marijuana with their patients who are part of marijuana programs approved by the state. Providing explanations about medical marijuana won’t increase the costs of VA to provide healthcare to veterans.
A separate bill was also approved by the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee early this month. The bill requires the VA to perform clinical trials to explore the therapeutic potential of marijuana in the treatment of medical conditions that usually affect veterans like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain. Right now, it is still unclear when the full House will vote on either bill. But the advocates feel confident that it will pass once it arrives on the floor
Existing Veteran’s Affairs Policy on Medical Marijuana
Many veterans who have used marijuana regularly to relieve the symptoms of PTSD and other types of service-related medical issues feel hesitant to discuss this with their VA care providers. They have a fear that their VA benefits will get jeopardized if they talk about it.
But the official website of the VA clearly 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 the symptoms of pain.”
The VA sources a list of controlled substances from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and right now, cannabis is still on the Schedule One Controlled Substances list of the FDA. If the MORE Act gets enacted into law, the situation will change and theoretically, this will open a more significant discussion about and the potential recommendations of medical cannabis by the medical providers of the Department of Veteran Affairs.
If the MORE Act becomes law, can the VA start recommending marijuana to VA patients? There is a high likelihood, but it won’t happen overnight. The VA may have to wait for a Senate version of the bill before taking the necessary steps. The final version of this bill will include a phased introduction of VA patients to medical marijuana.
Likewise, the members of the military shouldn’t assume that the passage of any marijuana decriminalization or legalization at the federal level will provide them with permission to use marijuana products. Military leaders also have the power to prohibit non-controlled substances like bath salts, Salvia Divinorum, Spice, and others using the off-limits order. Marijuana may also get subject to this treatment even if it becomes legal. Under the existing policies, any substance listed by the US Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule One controlled substance gets subject to this prohibition at the VA level.