VA policy expires, but its doctors still can't talk about medical pot to patients

Feb 23, 2016
In The News


WASHINGTON — Nevada veterans hoping finally to talk frankly with their VA physicians about using marijuana as part of their medical treatment still cannot do so even though a federal policy that critics claim blocks such honest doctor-patient discussions expired Jan. 31.
Veterans Affairs plans to keep following the policy, much to the chagrin of medical marijuana users such as veteran Dave Anson of Boulder City.
"You need to have a certain comfort level with your physician," said Anson, 67. "You don't know what the repercussions are going to be."
Anson said he switched to medical marijuana in 2015 to deal with chronic pain and get away from the opiates he had been using since 1992.
"Opiates were destroying my life," he said.
Anson is just as confident that marijuana has given him his life back by relieving the pain in his neck and legs he believes is connected to his service as an infantryman in the Army.
"There's no way to handle the pain without some kind of medication," he said.
Anson said he not only wants the VA to drop the now-expired directive barring agency physicians from at least discussing medical marijuana with patients but also to get behind the push to take it off the federal Schedule I list of drugs.
Clearly the VA is not ready to do that.
Policy to remain in place
In a statement to the Review-Journal, the veterans agency said the expired policy will remain in place.
"It is VA practice to continue to follow expired policies until they are either updated or rescinded," the agency stated.
It also pointed to potential legislative changes Congress could pass to clarify VA providers' role to assist veterans who wish to participate in state-approved programs.
That approach tracks with a challenge President Barack Obama recently laid down for members of Congress, who had urged him not to wait for legislation but change the federal policy on marijuana administratively. He told one group of lawmakers to get a bill to his desk.
U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who has joined other lawmakers in urging the VA to change its policy, predicted Congress again will try to do just that. But she noted the realities of the current makeup of Congress.
"It is primarily congressional Republicans who are blocking efforts to modernize our laws on this subject," she said. "Voters and legislators in state after state are changing the laws and Congress must catch up."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states — including Nevada — the District of Columbia and Guam now allow comprehensive medical marijuana and cannabis programs.
After a yearslong effort, medical marijuana is now legal in Nevada. The passing of state Senate Bill 374 in 2013 paved the way for the legal operation of regulated medical marijuana dispensaries, and at least 10 are now operating in Clark County.
Congress to face issue again
When Congress takes up a VA spending bill later this year, Titus said she anticipates legislation to prohibit such blanket policies as the one at the VA will be pushed again.
"There have been some bipartisan successes, namely amendments to annual spending bills that prohibit the use of federal funds at DOJ (U.S. Department of Justice) to go after legal users and businesses operating legally in states where medical marijuana is legal," the congresswoman said
Titus serves on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs and is the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
"I am sponsoring legislation on a variety of issues related to marijuana," she said.
Titus recently joined 20 other members of the House and Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, in sending a letter to the VA urging the agency to change its current policy and allow its physicians to discuss and recommend medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
"This policy disincentivizes doctors and patients from being honest with each other," their letter states.
Noting the expiration date on the directive, the lawmakers specifically asked the agency to use its expiration to act and ensure veterans' access to care is not compromised.
While a veteran could use medical marijuana for the same reasons cited by users in the civilian population, advocates of changing the federal policy mention ailments that are more common among veterans such as post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain.
In its response to a reporter, the VA provided information stating current federal law prohibits its physicians from prescribing medical marijuana and from completing forms necessary for patients to enroll in state marijuana programs.
"Federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance and federal employees must comply with federal law, despite state law allowing marijuana use," the agency stated.
It also noted that veterans who choose to participate in a state marijuana program are not denied VA services, including its pain control programs.
Contact Jim Myers at or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @myers_dc