The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) released a policy this month that explicitly authorizes Veterans Administration (VA) doctors and pharmacists to discuss the pros and cons of marijuana use with their patients in states with medical marijuana (MMJ) programs.
The clash between federal and state laws regarding marijuana is perhaps most acute in VA hospitals and medical facilities operating in states with MMJ programs. Since the enactment of Proposition 215 in California over twenty years ago VA physicians and veterans have been navigating the “no man’s land” of MMJ with minimal guidance. On the one hand, as federal employees, VA physicians may not lawfully recommend marijuana to their patients. In fact, until now there has been no clear guidance about the circumstances under which they could discuss their patient’s marijuana use at all. On the other hand, veterans who are lawfully using marijuana to treat health problems have a right for their marijuana use to be taken into consideration by their doctors and pharmacists in evaluating treatment options and making important decisions about health care.
The new VHA policy formally remedies this decades-long problem. It states that a VA doctor or pharmacist providing care to veterans in a state with a MMJ program may discuss a veteran’s medical cannabis use “due to its clinical relevance to patient care, and discuss marijuana use with any veterans requesting information about marijuana.” Additionally, the policy clarifies that being enrolled in a state-legal MMJ program will not prohibit a veteran from participating in VHA programs.
VA doctors are still not authorized to recommend MMJ to their patients. This is disappointing. To be fair, it is the a result of marijuana’s continued presence as a schedule one drug on the Controlled Substances Act, an issue that is properly remedied by Congress rather than a VHA policy. Still, this policy is a big step forward for veterans. Indeed, it is a big step for the country at large, which overwhelmingly supports MMJ reform. In the face of Congressional inaction, the accumulation of small changes in federal policy gradually reinforces state MMJ programs while extending access to patients.
This article was originally published in the Cannabis Law Report, December 22, 2017. Thanks to Sean Hocking, John Taylor, and the entire CLR group for their excellent journalism about the cannabis industry.