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U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Updates Physician Guidelines, Still Rejects Use of Medical Marijuana

The VA still bars doctors from recommending medical marijuana, but like any responsible medical professionals, they want to know what drugs patients are taking.

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In a series of events that ultimately mirrors the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs entire approach to medical marijuana, the VA released a new set of physician guidelines yesterday encouraging increased doctor-patient communication about cannabis, before quickly issuing a press statement unequivocally stating that VA doctors are still not allowed to recommend medical marijuana, and that they have not changed their policy regarding cannabis at all.

The back-and-forth began when Forbes writer and cannabis activist Tom Angell broke down the VA's new five page directive and it's cannabis conversation details. He also highlighted the barriers to medical marijuana access that continue to stand in veterans' way and noted the distinction between a recommendation and prescription.

Still, no matter how many caveats Angell provided, VA officials did not take kindly to his description of the recently released guidelines as a "new policy" and quickly rebuked the Forbes article's word choice.

"It is updated guidance to encourage veterans to let their VA physicians know if they are using marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, just as VA physicians would want to know about any other use by veteran patients of federally illegal drugs," VA spokesman Curt Cashour told the Air Force Times. "The goal is to get a full picture of patient health, including all legal and illegal medications. Calling the updated guidance document a more open approach to marijuana use is a mischaracterization."

Semantics aside, Angell's point, that after years of consistent denials and wholesale rebukes of medical marijuana, even the slightest hint of cannabis reform in the VA is encouraging.

Whether they return home with physical scars, mental wounds, or both, America's veterans are often prescribed strong pharmaceuticals and opioid painkillers, drugs that can often exacerbate issues of PTSD and lead to life-threatening addiction.

In an interview with MERRY JANE last month, Sean Kiernan, President of the Weed for Warriors Project, a group dedicated to helping veterans find solace in cannabis, described the continued challenge for returning soldiers seeking help from the VA and the relief that cannabis can bring.

"If you look at the medicines the VA gives to you, what're they giving you?" Kiernan said. "First, let's take pain. You're getting some type of opioid or narcotic. What're the side effects of that? You can see addiction to synthetic heroin, basically. Beyond that? Overdose. What else do they give you? Mood stabilizers. Lithium. SSRIs, the anti-anxiety meds, Xanax and so forth. The anti-convulsants. The anti-psychotics. The anti-depressants. And the ADD meds, because those others all make you fall asleep. Then they throw in Viagra because now you're sexually dysfunctional, too. My point being, cannabis is a substitute for all of that — for many of us. I know triple-amputees who were on 30 pills today. Now, they take none. They use cannabis heavily."

But while the distinction between a federally sanctioned physician's prescription and a state-sanctioned medical marijuana recommendation means that there is no actual law stopping VA doctors from acting as an unpaid medical marijuana middleman, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has made it the departments policy to ban those recommendations, even in cases where doctors believe cannabis could help a patient.

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In his challenge of Angell's recent characterization, Cashour made sure to reiterate that the department's policy has not changed at all.

"VA physicians can also gather statistics and other information from veterans about their use of marijuana or other federally illegal drugs as part of understanding the effects of that drug use on their overall health. VA's position on marijuana remains unchanged," Cashour said.

So while VA doctors new approach to deeper conversation and increased understanding about patients' cannabis use could be valuable in stopping the over-prescription of dangerous pharmaceuticals, the federal department still has significant work to do if they truly want to give America's returning heroes the care and respect they deserve.

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