Under current Department of Veterans Affairs policy, any substance listed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule 1 controlled substance is subject to the same prohibition at the VA level.
However, as more states consider legalizing medical marijuana, a growing number of veterans and interest groups have urged the government to reconsider the VA’s policy on medical cannabis.
In 2018, former Representatives Phil Roe (R) of Tennessee and Tim Walz (D) of Minnesota introduced House Resolution 5520, The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018, which proposed to authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct medical marijuana research.
Specifically, the bill authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs (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 who have certain conditions, including chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
H.R. 5520 died in Congress, but another measure, known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) passed the House in December 2020.
It has not yet had a Senate hearing or vote.
If passed, the MORE Act would remove cannabis from the Food and Drug Administration’s Schedule 1 Controlled Substances roster.
Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The MORE Act decriminalizes, regulates and taxes marijuana. It prohibits agencies from denying cannabis users public benefits, such as public housing. It also prohibits the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service from discriminating against citizenship applicants who use marijuana.
Official Department of Defense Policy on Marijuana
The Department of Defense strictly prohibits military members from using marijuana, cannabis and CBD products.
It also requires recruiters to use discretion when interviewing potential new recruits about possible drug use prior to military service. While recruiters do not have to reject prospective recruits for minor marijuana use, they may have to apply for a waiver before recruits with a drug history can enlist.
Military service branches apply a zero-tolerance policy to current service members who use drugs, including marijuana. A positive drug test for any illegal drug or illegally-used prescription drug is grounds for punishment and possibly discharge from the military.
Department of Veterans Affairs Policy on Medical Marijuana
VA policy on cannabis use is not connected with the official DOD policies.
However, while several states have decriminalized medical and recreational marijuana, the VA is a federal agency, so it must abide by federal law.
That means as long as marijuana is federally illegal, the VA can not recommend it or prescribe it as a treatment. VA pharmacies can’t fill a prescription for medical marijuana either.
However, the VA said it does not penalize veterans who use marijuana to relieve symptoms of PTSD or another service-connected.
Veterans can disclose marijuana, cannabis and CBD drug use to their medical provider without jeopardizing their health care and benefits, according to the VA.
Should the MORE Act–or something like it–pass into law, the VA’s policy on medical marijuana may change.
However, the change is unlikely to occur overnight if the passed legislation prescribed a phased introduction to medical cannabis for VA patients.
However, current military members who receive VA health care can not assume that marijuana legalization or decriminalization gives them permission to use cannabis products.
Military leadership has banned the use of legal substances like synthetic cannabinoids (“Spice,” or “K-2”), salvia divinorum and bath salts before. So, DOD could ban marijuana use, even if it was federally legal.
Veterans Will Not Lose VA Benefits for Discussing Medical Marijuana With VA Care Providers
The VA official site makes it clear that veterans who use cannabis are not in danger of losing VA benefits:
“Veteran participation in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services. VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with Veterans as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary.”
While currently military members – including National Guardsmen and reservists – remain subject to DOD policy, it is safe for retired or separated military veterans to discuss marijuana use with VA staff.
VA caregivers need as much information as possible to make decisions about a veteran’s continued health care. Patient lifestyle choices are an important consideration in many health care decisions, including medication regimens. Many prescription drugs can interact negatively with alcohol, cannabis or other substances.
Doctors who know about a veteran’s marijuana use may advise different treatment options to avoid drug interactions.
Specific VA Policy Regarding the Discussion of Medical Marijuana Use With Patients
The VA official site has a list of rules, information and reassurances for veterans concerned about being forthright about their medical pot use with a VA caregiver. Specifically:
- The VA will not deny veterans their VA benefits because of marijuana use.
- The VA encourages veterans to discuss marijuana use with their VA providers.
- VA health care providers will record marijuana use in the veteran’s VA medical record, to have the information available in treatment planning. The information is part of the veteran’s confidential medical record, protected under patient privacy and confidentiality laws and regulations.
- VA clinicians may not recommend medical marijuana.
- VA clinicians may not prescribe products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) or any other cannabinoids.
- VA clinicians may not complete paperwork or forms for veteran patients to participate in state-approved marijuana programs.
VA Medical Marijuana Policies for State-Level MMJ Card/Medical Cannabis Card Approval
In states where medical marijuana is approved, patients must go through some kind of screening process to legally buy pot from a state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary.
In Illinois, for example, applicants must be screened for any one of a list of symptoms, including certain types of chronic pain, PTSD and debilitating conditions such as fibromyalgia.
Illinois requires the applicant to have a physician’s approval for marijuana, and many veterans would naturally turn to their VA caregivers for this certification. However, VA policy does not permit VA doctors or care providers to help with state-required paperwork for medical cannabis (MMJ) cards or any other part of the process.
VA patients must seek clinician certification at non-VA facilities instead.
VA Policy on Medical Marijuana Prescriptions
Many states do not require a prescription for medical cannabis. Patients who use legal medical pot receive cards “authorizing” them to possess cannabis instead.
In any case, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not permit VA clinics or staff to prescribe or fill prescriptions for medical marijuana.
The VA will not pay for such prescriptions, regardless of the source. VA rules also forbid marijuana possession and use while on VA property.
VA Employment Policies for Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana
The Department of Veterans Affairs, like all federal agencies, observes the Food and Drug Administration’s prohibition on marijuana.
Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, so veterans who use medical marijuana are ineligible for VA employment. Failing a drug test while working at the VA could also endanger your job, as abstaining from controlled substances is a condition of federal employment.
This may be true of both marijuana and marijuana derivatives such as cannabidiol, which is not illegal but may cause a positive result for marijuana on a drug test.
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