Recently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) changed its language on their website to suggest that the department is open to researching the effects of medical marijuana as a viable treatment option. On the VA’s website, a recent update suggests that research towards the benefits of medical marijuana for Veterans may finally be opening up.
The VA is seeking to clarify its position pertaining to the VA and marijuana. According to the VA Website, they understand that several states have approved marijuana use for medical use. They also reiterate that marijuana and all derivative products are still classified under federal law as a Schedule One controlled substance. Therefore, it is still illegal under federal government laws.
What Does the FDA Have to Do With the VA?
Since the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is mandated to follow all federal laws and the Food and Drug Administration still classifies marijuana as a Schedule One drug, VA doctors and health care providers are not allowed to recommend it or prescribe it to veterans.
However, they are allowed to discuss marijuana use with their patients as part of an overall care plan. This is where the “waters get murky.” The VA states:
- Veterans are still allowed access to VA benefits when marijuana use is reported to their healthcare provider.
- These same Veterans are encouraged to discuss all drug use with their providers.
- The provider will record marijuana use in the veteran’s record as a means to help with treatment planning.
- Clinicians at the VA may not recommend medical marijuana.
- Clinicians may not provide any paperwork for Veterans to allow participation in state-approved marijuana programs.
- Pharmacies at the VA are not to fill any prescriptions for medical marijuana.
- Funds from the VA will not be used to pay for medical marijuana prescriptions.
- Any state laws regarding the possession of marijuana are not in effect when on VA grounds. The VA is a federal facility and federal laws govern any federal facility.
In addition, Carolyn Clancy, M.D. Executive in Charge, emailed a directive to employees of the VA on December 15, 2017, to provide clarification on the VA’s stand on medical marijuana. Some items in the directive include:
- Reason – The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) directive is to provide guidance on access to VHA clinical programs for all Veterans who participate in State-approved marijuana programs.
- Summary of Major Changes – The major change in policy is to add additional support to the Veteran-provider relationship when discussing the impact on health and use of marijuana for any Veteran-specific treatment plans.
This language gives hope to medical marijuana advocates that the VA is finally opening up to investigating the effects of medical marijuana on health problems faced by Veterans, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Marijuana Moments Tom Angell originally reported the change by the VA’s Office of Research & Development. Their website refers to earlier research on medical marijuana saying that in their review they “found limited evidence” where marijuana use helped reduce pain in some patients. In addition, it found that medical marijuana “might reduce spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis,” but found little evidence to determine the direct effect of marijuana on PTSD. VA doctors are not currently able to prescribe medical marijuana to Veterans, but they can look at marijuana as an option in treating medical problems faced by Veterans.
This leads many in the healthcare and marijuana industry to have hope in one day using medical marijuana as a possible treatment option for suffering Veterans. However, this new stance directly conflicts with VA Secretary David Shulkin’s recent letter that announced there would be no agency research on marijuana due to its federal classification as a Schedule I substance.
Shulkin’s letter was in direct response to a request for clarification made by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. The U.S. House members want the VA to begin investigating the potential effects of medical marijuana for veterans who suffer with chronic pain and PTSD. Representative Walz, ranking member of the House committee said that Shulkin’s response to their request was “disappointing and unacceptable.”
He went on to say that the VA did not answer their “simple question,” but that they also made an attempt to mislead the committee by claiming, “without citing any specific law, that VA is restricted from conducting research into medical cannabis, which is categorically untrue.”
It seems as if Shulkin has been caught pointing the finger at the FDA for the VA’s lack of interest in researching the benefits of medical marijuana for Veterans.
Pressure Towards the VA Mounts
A recent poll, funded by the American Legion, found that more than 9 out of 10 military veterans desire additional research into medical marijuana and its benefits in treating ailments faced by veterans every day. The new poll by the nation’s largest veterans service organization shows:
- More than ninety-two percent of veterans who support the expansion of research into medical marijuana
- Eighty-three percent of veterans believe that medical marijuana should be legalized by the federal government
- Over eighty percent also favor allowing VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients
American Legion spokesman, Joe Plenzler, told The Cannabist, “We already know that greater than 80% of the American public supports research into the efficacy of medical cannabis. What this survey shows is that America’s veterans feel even more strongly about the need to study cannabis and its potential in treating PTSD, chronic pain and other ailments veterans face every day.”
How the House Committee on Veterans Affairs is Helping
The 10-member group who sit on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, is currently urging the Trump administration to study the benefits of medical marijuana for military veterans. Congressman Tim Walz (D-MN) understands the importance of medical marijuana research and how access has become a critical issue to veterans.
The House Representatives who joined Walz in urging President Trump to act include:
- Mark Takano (D-CA)
- Julia Brownley (D-CA)
- Ann McKlane Kuster (D-NH)
- Beto O’Rourke (D-TX)
- Kathleen Rice (D-NY)
- J. Luis Correa (D-CA)
- Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-MP)
- Elizabeth Esty (D-CT)
- Scott Peters (D-CA)
In response, Congress passed a defense bill in December that opened the door for medical marijuana to be approved by the Department of Defense. President Trump signed HR-2810 into law on December 12 which gives the Department of Defense the authority to approve any medical devices or drugs for members of the armed forces, stepping on the toes of the FDA.