Bipartisan congressional lawmakers are expressing “deep concern” over a recently updated U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) marijuana directive that continues to prohibit its doctors from making medical cannabis recommendations to veterans living in states where it’s legal.
In a letter sent to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Thursday, three co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus—Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Dave Joyce (R-OH)—said that VA “has once again denied the reality of medical marijuana as a key treatment option” for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and other health conditions.
They said the decision to maintain the “harmful policy” on cannabis recommendations is especially “alarming” in the context of VA’s latest clinical guidance on PTSD, which strongly recommends against using medical cannabis as a treatment option.
“We urge you to reconsider this misguided prohibition that prevents these health professionals from considering the full range of available treatment options in consultation with their patients,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter also points out that, prior to VA releasing the directive earlier this month, they successfully championed an amendment to a House appropriations bill that would allow the department’s doctors to recommend medical cannabis to veterans. The Senate Appropriations Committee also passed a similar reform as part of its version of the appropriations legislation.
“Giving VA providers the discretion to recommend or not recommend medical marijuana as best serves their patients would improve veterans’ services and stop forcing them to self-medicate or seek care outside of the VA system,” the letter says. “It would not put providers at risk of federal prosecution from the Department of Justice and its agencies.”
“Many veterans already report using cannabis for medical purposes as a substitute for prescription drugs and their side effects,” they said, adding that a recent survey of veterans who use cannabis found that they report improved quality of life and reduced use of certain prescription drugs, including opioids.
“VA is isolated in its continued denial of this treatment option for veterans. No one is better qualified to make recommendations on care for their patients than veterans working with their VA health care providers,” the letter says, continuing:
“We applaud VA’s continued protection from retribution against veterans using medical marijuana. However, reaffirming the prohibition on recommendations, referrals, and forms for state-authorized medical marijuana puts stigma in the VA ahead of the needs of veterans.
It is past time for VA to become a better partner in the path forward on this issue for our veterans. Instead of blocking veterans from equal access to this treatment option, VA should participate in the additional research and education we owe to patients and the public. We urge you to rethink the detrimental prohibition against providers serving their patients to the best of their ability where medical marijuana is authorized and regulated by their states.”
VA has updated its cannabis guidance before, adding language in its 2017 version that explicitly encouraged VA doctors to discuss veterans’ marijuana use, for example.
The most recently updated directive says VA providers can continue to “discuss relevant clinical information regarding marijuana use with Veterans who request information about marijuana or report marijuana use and document this information in the Veteran’s electronic health record.”
Despite calls for further reform from advocates, veterans groups and lawmakers, however, the agency has continued to push back against congressional efforts to allow its doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations or mandate clinical trials into the efficacy of marijuana for various health conditions that commonly afflict veterans.
Read the letter to the VA secretary about the cannabis directive below:
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.