Medical cannabis is the source of relief for a myriad of ailments for millions of people, and veterans are no exception. A conflict well known to the military community lies within its ties to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which is a department of the federal government charged with providing healthcare services to entitled veterans for the remainder of their lives. Can the VA write a prescription for cannabis? Officially, the VA and medical cannabis do not get along, although some hopeful progress is being made toward an environment where the VA approves cannabis use.
The VA and Medical Cannabis
The VA has conducted various research and studies regarding the use of medical cannabis but continues to deny cannabis recommendations and prescriptions to veterans in the 37 U.S. states that allow medical marijuana, Mississippi being the most recent addition to the list. VA doctors are also not allowed to issue medical marijuana cards. These rules also apply to the VA and retired soldiers with cannabis interest. Official guidance allows veterans to discuss cannabis use with their VA doctor without repercussions, however, many do not due to fear of cannabis’s status as federally illegal. The most-cited reason lawmakers, including President Biden, use for refraining from federal changes is the lack of FDA-approved research on the effects of cannabis.
In addition to physical pain, mental health is a major issue in the United States, and members of the military are one highly vulnerable group to the dangers associated with inadequate care. According to the VA, a number of studies have indicated both PTSD and battlefield trauma contribute to a higher rate of suicidal ideation — and exposure to suicide, such as a friend or family member, can also contribute to PTSD. Further data from the VA in 2018 stated an average of 18 veterans a day committed suicide. Today, the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, which saw a 6% increase in Crisis Line calls, has exacerbated the demand for more complete care, including increased favor for VA cannabis prescription.
Can the VA Write a Prescription for Cannabis?
The head of the VA, Denis McDonough, noted in November 2021 that officials within the organization are “looking at” the possibility of an internal policy change regarding the VA and medical cannabis.
“We’re trying to explore what more we can do,” he said. “And I’ve talked to our friends in the rest of the federal government, including the Department of Justice, on what we can do on this, and with the White House.”
Below is some of the current pending legislation related to veteran cannabis use and the potential for VA cannabis prescription:
HR 5977 – States Reform Act, introduced 11/15/2021. Latest Action: House – 11/16/2021 Referred to the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. The bill seeks to deschedule cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act but allow state regulation or prohibition, similar to alcohol.
HR 3105 – Common Sense Cannabis Reform for Veterans, Small Businesses, and Medical Professionals Act, introduced 5/11/21. Latest Action: House – 11/09/2021 Referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. This proposed bill would allow physicians to recommend, complete forms for or register veterans for participation in a treatment program involving medical cannabis as approved by the State or Indian Tribe laws.
HR 2588 – Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act, introduced 4/15/21. Latest Action: House – 10/19/2021 Referred to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. This bill would allow VA doctors to write a VA cannabis prescription to veterans in states that have established state-legal medical cannabis programs.
HR 430 – Veterans Cannabis Use for Safe Healing Act, introduced 1/21/21. Latest Action: House – 03/16/2021 Referred to the Subcommittee on Health. This bill prohibits the VA from denying a veteran any VA benefit due to participation in a state-approved cannabis program, and allows VA physicians and other VA health care providers to provide recommendations to veterans who are residents of states with approved medical cannabis programs.
A small legislative precedent does exist: since 2014, patients and state-legal medical cannabis programs have been protected from federal prosecutions by the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment (RFA), which is annually renewed by Congress in spending bills, and notes the U.S. Justice Department is prohibited from spending appropriated federal funds to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws.
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