Vets can now discuss their marijuana use with VA doctors without losing their healthcare benefits, but the continued pot prohibition has left many unnerved.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has issued new guidelines urging doctors and pharmacists to talk to patients about how their medical marijuana use could interact with other medication and their VA treatment plan, but VA doctors are still forbidden from referring veterans to medical marijuana programs because cannabis remains illegal under federal law.
The policy update, reported by NPR, provides some comfort for veterans who were afraid that by discussing their marijuana use with VA doctors they could lose benefits or access to healthcare. However, many feel that the policy does not go far enough.
“Vets are happy that there’s a policy, but they’re unnerved by that prohibition,” said Michael Krawitz, a disabled veteran and executive director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, an organization that advocates for access to medical marijuana for vets.
Krawitz said that he has always discussed his marijuana use with his VA providers. However, other vets have told him that they have been kicked out of pain management programs at the VA because they tested positive for cannabis.
Curtis Cashour, a VA spokesman, emphasized that the VA’s position on medical marijuana has not changed, and that the organization will not be able to refer veterans to medical marijuana programs until federal law changes. That seems unlikely to happen any time soon, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions taking an increasingly conservative stance on marijuana, including medical cannabis.
Despite the continuing restrictions on referrals to medical marijuana programs, healthcare providers say that the VA’s new policy is important if it encourages more veterans to have honest conversations about their drug use with their doctors.
“It’s absolutely critical that you know what your patients are taking, if only to be better able to assess what is going on,” said Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a psychiatrist who has written about medical marijuana use.
Last summer the Senate Appropriations Committee voted in favor of an amendment to the federal budget that would have allowed VA doctors to refer patients to medical marijuana programs. However, the amendment did not make it into the final version of the budget bill.
Some people argue that it is important for veterans to have access to medical marijuana, giving the prevalence of conditions like PTSD among that population.
Veterans are also at a higher risk for overdose from opioids, leaving the VA scrambling to design new policies that can reduce the number of opioid prescriptions that veterans receive.