The House of Representatives voted Thursday to allow Veterans Administration doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients in states where the treatment is legal.
From Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, states where medical marijuana is legal, veterans have been unable to access state-approved medicine because VA doctors were not authorized to write the prescription.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is a federal entity that governs healthcare for members of the military. Since the VA, its hospitals, and its doctors exist under federal purview, it is federal law they follow. Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which, according to the DEA, means it has “no currently accepted medical use.”
In other states where marijuana is banned completely, the option isn’t even on the table.
Veterans' access to medical marijuana is currently in the hands of congress—the same body that sent them to war.
Those wars leave returning soldiers with lifelong ailments, primarily chronic pain and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). VA doctors initially responded to the problem with liberal prescriptions for opiates. Unsurprisingly, many veterans developed addictions to the drugs, so the VA scaled back without providing much in the way of alternatives.
The VA’s stance on marijuana is that there is not enough research on its addictive and psychological effects to justify medical use. And yet, veterans across the country are speaking up about the benefits to their health.
In email correspondence with MERRY JANE, Scott Murphy, President of Veterans for Safe Access and Compassionate Care, said that the emphasis on needing more research is more about “playing politics” than about making sure vets are properly cared for.
“With 22 daily suicides, and veterans being affected by opiate addiction in larger numbers than the civilian population, it is unreasonable for any potential treatment option to be off the table. There is even less evidence that medical cannabis is addictive, or that the side effects are worse than that of opiates, SSRIs, anti-depressants or any of the other pharmaceuticals presently pumped into veterans,” Murphy said.
The VA directive prohibiting doctors from recommending marijuana to patients expired in January, but until a new directive is put in place the policy stands.
In a letter to Senator Gillibrand (D-NY), Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald said that the update to the directive will no longer prohibit “patient-provider discussions about marijuana,” but says that without change in federal law “it would subject VA providers to uncertainty about whether DEA would investigate their conduct and then, whether the U.S. Attorney would pursue prosecution.” Without change in federal law, or at least without congress’ blessing, VA doctors will not be giving medical marijuana recommendations.
The DEA recently approved the study of marijuana for the treatment of PTSD.
Medical marijuana is legal in 24 states as well as the District of Columbia.
The House passed the amendment, which is attached to the 2017 military appropriations bill, in a 233-189 vote. Later Thursday, the Senate passed a massive spending bill including similar language on medical marijuana.
“Combat Veterans should not be left behind as the majority of Americans enact sensible and compassionate 21st century health care reform,” said Murphy. “The VA was not established to take care of the pharmaceutical companies, but to take care of veterans that have served their country. If a VA doctor believes that medical cannabis is the right choice for a veteran then that is what should be paid for.”
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Marijuana advocacy groups praised the vote as significant progress for veterans. While the movement is certainly picking up momentum, thousands of vets continue to suffer without access to medical marijuana, in spite of its growing availability in states across the country.
“We are delighted to lift this outdated, discriminatory policy, which has negatively impacted the lives of so many veterans,” said Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need all options on the table to treat veterans, and finally Congress has seen sense and will allow veterans to be on an equal footing to other residents of medical marijuana states.”