Budget bill forces VA to review policy on medicinal marijuana
By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 13, 2015
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs said Friday it was reviewing a bill in Congress that could give sick vets across the country access to medical marijuana as early as next month.
The Senate passed the department’s annual budget bill earlier this week, and it would bar the VA from punishing its doctors when they recommend pot as treatment for vets.
Medical marijuana has been approved by 23 states and the District of Columbia for treatment of a variety of afflictions, including glaucoma, cancer and HIV – and there is some evidence it could also help with post-traumatic stress. But the VA prohibits its health care staff from participating in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs and follows federal law that still deems pot an illegal drug.
“We are reviewing the provisions and their potential impact on VA,” spokeswoman Linda West wrote in an email response to Stars and Stripes.
The VA said vets who participate in the state marijuana treatment programs are not prohibited from also using the VA substance abuse and pain control programs, although they face being treated for “misuse” of the drug.
The language and intent of the bill is to allow veterans seeking information about medicinal marijuana in states where it is legal to discuss options with their doctors at the VA, said Martina McLennan, spokeswoman for sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
“Should the president sign this bill or any omnibus with this language, Sen. Merkley expects the VA to follow the law and permit VA doctors to answer patients’ questions and provide any necessary documentation for their patients to comply with the law in their state relating to medicinal marijuana,” McLennan wrote in an email.
For now, veterans who suffer from any conditions that states consider treatable by marijuana must go outside their VA health care system to get the treatment.
“The notion that somehow veterans would not be able to work with their primary care provider and would have to go track somebody down at their own expense to treat them is lunacy,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.
Blumenauer has been a top advocate on Capitol Hill for veterans’ access to medical marijuana and has proposed two pieces of legislation this year aimed at open access for vets. He said the department could easily accept the changes in the budget bill if it chooses.
The Obama administration has said it will not challenge state laws on marijuana. Still, the VA maintains that its hands are tied by federal law.
“I think that the Obama administration needs to clarify to get these people in line,” Blumenauer said. “The problem is there are parts of the bureaucracy that are just undercutting the president.”
The rules restricting the VA from punishing doctors, included in the annual appropriations bill, must still make it through the budget process in Congress.
Blumenauer said that is highly likely, but partisan fighting has brought lawmakers into “uncharted waters.” The current federal budget will expire Dec. 11 and the VA budget and medical marijuana measure could be passed into law to replace it.
“This is where America is going, and sooner or later the VA will have to get on board,” he said.