Veterans and the VA: Where do they stand on Cannabis?
Many veterans suffer from illnesses which could potentially be benefited by the use of Cannabis products. Such illnesses include PTSD, chronic pain due to service-related injuries and cancer among others. Cannabis products are currently classified by the FDA as Schedule 1 controlled substances which means that they do not have any recognized medical use and have the potential for abuse. Schedule 1 drugs are illegal according to the Federal Government. On the other hand, 31 states have now legalized Cannabis and there is a host of evidence that Cannabis products could potentially help veterans with their health problems.
The Veterans Administration is a federal agency and as such, must abide by federal and not state laws and is therefore prevented from providing Cannabis products to veterans. Until recently VA physicians could not even discuss Cannabis products with veterans, could not do research to study the effects of Cannabis products on veterans and of course, could not prescribe Cannabis products for veterans.
Many veterans, however, have turned to other sources to obtain Cannabis products. A program in one California locale is providing veterans with tickets which they can redeem for a variety of Cannabis products including oils, edibles, and formulations which can be smoked. Cannabis growers in the Santa Cruz, California region are donating a portion of their crop to veterans in an act of what they believe is medical compassion, donating part of their crop of high-potency medical marijuana to ailing veterans who line up in the auditorium of the city’s old veterans hall to receive a ticket that they can exchange for a free bag. One of those veterans said that he was using marijuana infused oil to treat pancreatic cancer and another one said that smoking cannabis eased the pain from recent hip replacement better than prescription pain pills did. Several veterans said that a smoking marijuana reduced the anxiety and nightmares of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Recently, the VA restrictions on medical marijuana have been relaxed to the point that VA physicians may now discuss medical marijuana with their patients and may include information about patients medical marijuana use in their medical records but they may not prescribe Cannabis products nor may they complete forms which would allow their patients to participate in state-approved medical marijuana programs. VA physicians are also unable to recommend cannabis products for their patients. Also, importantly, veterans may not be denied VA benefits because of their use of marijuana products nor may they be subjected to any punitive measures as a result of their use of such products. It is important to know that this applies to retired or separated military members only and not to active duty military members. Active duty military members who use marijuana products or test positive for their use may be separated from the military. Additionally, veterans who use marijuana products would not be eligible to become VA employees nor to continue as VA employees if they are already employed and VA patients may not possess cannabis products when they are on VA hospital grounds because that would be a violation of federal law.
Congress has made recent attempts to change the ground rules as they apply to the VA and the medical use of marijuana products. For instance, Representative Phil Roe (R) of Tennessee and Representative Tim Walz (D) of Minnesota have introduced House Resolution 5520, The VA Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2018. HR 5520 would, if passed, authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to do medical marijuana research. Specifically, the bill authorizes the 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.” The bill was only introduced and not acted upon but the fact that there was a bipartisan effort to create this policy indicates that American society is ready to end the prohibition of cannabis or at a minimum that it is time to approve cannabis and cannabis-derived products for medical use on a federal level. Since one obstacle to the approval of cannabis for medical uses is the lack of solid evidence about its safety and effectiveness, the studies suggested by this legislation would go a long way to resolving that dilemma.
In the meantime, however, veterans will have to turn to resources other than the VA in order to obtain cannabis products. Non-VA physicians may help veterans to obtain cannabis products in accordance with laws specific to each state. Interestingly, Governor Andrew Cuomo has recently recommended that within months, New York State laws be expanded from the approval of cannabis products for medical use to its approval for recreational use as well.