Let’s talk about the VA

by Kayla Johnson

The battle to legalize cannabis has gained substantial momentum with each additional state that continues to pass either recreational or medical cannabis laws, but despite the rising support from sea to shining sea, the federal stance has remained unchanged since the Controlled Substances Act of 1971.  In the eyes of the government, cannabis has no medical value, and there are no possible treatments that cannabis could offer any ailment. Despite a handful of bills that have stalled out, there’s not been much effort in Congress to change this thus far. While state legalization is a giant step in the right direction, for the patients who use both cannabis and VA healthcare, it can still be a tricky path to walk.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is a federal entity, and it’s required to follow all federal laws, including the ones about cannabis. This means doctors who work at the VA can’t recommend cannabis to their patients, they can’t sign off on someone’s recommendation form, and because all VA facilities are federal facilities under federal law, the use or even possession of cannabis on VA grounds is strictly prohibited.

To make the situation even more strenuous, for veterans who see the VA for pain management and choose to pursue cannabis on their own, it can cause problems. As with many healthcare providers, the VA regularly has veterans submit UAs (urinary analysis, AKA the drug test) to ensure they’re actually taking their medications, especially if they’re a veteran who takes painkillers regularly to manage pain. If cannabis appears on that drug test, many doctors will refuse to continue to prescribe their regular pain medication, and while cannabis is certainly the answer to many prayers, there are a number of veterans who still need prescription painkillers for whatever the reason.

Those veterans who do decide to use medical marijuana will not be denied benefits, besides the aforementioned conflict with VA physicians prescribing pain medicine, but while veterans (and all cannabis patients) are encouraged to discuss their cannabis use with their primary care physician, many find that their doctors through the VA are less than enthusiastic about their choice. Some simply repeat the old D.A.R.E.-esque propaganda about cannabis being a gateway drug to harder substances, while others are much more direct and personal with their dislike of the plant and their opinion of those who use it.  It’s hard to tell whether the overall attitude at the VA towards cannabis and those who choose to use it is just strictly the official federal position, a severe lack of understanding about the wide ranging benefits of the plant, or just doctors doing what they’ve done for decades and push pharmaceuticals, when a better, more natural option was available.

There have been a few bills that have been introduced over the last several years to give all veterans receiving VA care the ability to receive recommendations for cannabis from their doctors, legally use medical cannabis, and increase the research the VA does on cannabis and what benefits it has for veterans. As legalization sweeps across the country from state to state, support for these bills has been gradually going up as well, as more and more people realize the potential relief it can offer, but thus far, nothing has taken root enough to incite serious change. In February of this year, Senator Tim Kaine from Virginia and and Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii put forward legislation that would give doctors from the VA permission to discuss and recommend medical marijuana for veterans who live in states that have legalized it, and would encourage further research into the benefits of cannabis for opioid abuse relief, a key step considering veterans are one of the most likely groups to struggle with opioid addiction.

While there have been stirrings of political support for veterans and cannabis use, the VA remains a staunch pillar of opposition. It may very well be that they simply have to maintain their official viewpoint on it for the time being, but as is often the case with the VA and their standards and procedures, it’s the veterans who are suffering. In states where cannabis has been legalized, most people find the freedom to be open with their medical use of it. Yet those who in many cases have given a great deal, in one way or another for our country are still unable to discuss their use or the benefits of cannabis with their doctor without potentially being lectured, shamed, or even harassed about their use.

In many ways, the VA can improve, and do better for our veterans. In regards to cannabis, one of the easiest ways to do this is to ensure their doctors and other health staff are given the opportunity to be educated in cannabis and the benefits, and to give them the chance to talk openly with their patients about it, rather than continuing the cycle of misinformation. People who have been opposed to cannabis in the past, once given access to the facts and science behind it, often change their opinion on it, and medical professionals are no exception. While there will always be those who are opposed for their own reasons, with one in four veterans using cannabis therapeutically, it’s getting harder and harder to deny the obvious: cannabis works, and our veterans deserve the access to it. There are rumors buzzing around the cannabis community that federal deregulation or legalization could be coming by the end of this year or next, though there’s not much to base that off of. The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor act could be the catalyst the VA needs to move forward with their research and allow veterans who live in medically legalized states to access cannabis without having to wait for the rest of the federal government to catch up.

There are thousands of veterans working in the cannabis industry across the country, in addition to being patients. They own dispensaries, processors, grow facilities or farms, even labs and security companies. There are almost no areas of the cannabis business that you can’t find a veteran in. Veterans are literally investing their lives and their health in cannabis because it works for them, and it’s changed their lives. For the VA to continue to hold a prejudice against those who choose to use it for their wounds, illnesses or injuries is unconscionable, considering that, like other patients who have found relief and wellness in cannabis, they’re walking, talking, living proof that cannabis IS medicine, and it deserves a place in the doctor’s office, even at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Times are changing, and it’s high time that the VA stepped up to the green plate for veterans.

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