Veterans Might Finally Get Access To Medical Marijuana

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Jonah Bennett Contributor
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A bipartisan group of 21 lawmakers has written a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert McDonald urging him to allow veterans access to medical marijuana.

The reason the debate is coming up again is because the VA has a policy banning doctors from broaching the subject of medical marijuana with their patients as a treatment option.

That policy, known as VHA Directive 2011-004, is set to expire Jan. 31, and 19 Democrats and two Republicans want to make sure that policy does in fact reach the grave.

“According to the current directive, VA providers are prohibited from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a veteran’s participation in a state-sanctioned marijuana program. This policy disincentivizes doctors and patients from being honest with each other,” lawmakers wrote in a letter. “Congress has taken initial steps to alleviate this conflict in law and we will continue to work toward this goal.  However, you are in a position to make this change when the current VHA directive expires at the end of this month.”

Marijuana reform has sparked internal discussion inside the department as well. In February 2015, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, interim undersecretary for health, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that officials were deep in talks on how best to accommodate veterans looking for medical marijuana as a treatment.

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, but veterans have no opportunity to access the drug because it remains illegal as a Schedule I drug under federal law. Lawmakers in 2015 tried to combat that through amendments to spending bills, and while this succeeded in both the House and Senate, the final version of the spending bill removed this language.

Part of the draw of marijuana is that it provides an alternative to overreliance on opioids, a problem which has afflicted the department. In many cases, instead of spending close attention to the patient, VA doctors prefer to just prescribe opioids. This is particularly an issue at the Tomah VA facility in Wisconsin, where Dr. David Houlihan, the former chief of staff, earned the infamous reputation of “Candy Man” for his tendency to rely on incredibly lax opioid prescription policies. Since the death of Marine Corps veteran Jason Simcakoski, the facility has tried hard to clean up its act and reverse excessive opioid prescription practices.

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