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VA loosens medical marijuana policy

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The VA is still a long way off from paying for vets’ pot. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • The VA is still a long way off from paying for vets’ pot.
Under a new policy issued in December, doctors employed by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) under the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) may now discuss medical marijuana with their patients, though they still can’t recommend it.

Now rescinded is a 2011 policy that put a gag order on health care providers. The text of that directive, which no longer appears on the VA website, required that VA doctors, nurses and pharmacists stay silent about medical marijuana as an alternative to pharmaceuticals.

Especially in states like Colorado that have legal marijuana, that policy frustrated veterans, who may have benefited from using medical marijuana to treat pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and more, but were unable to discuss it with their doctor.

The new directive, authored by Carolyn Clancy, executive in charge at VHA, states that doctors may discuss marijuana use with patients, “due to its clinical relevance to patient care,” including “how their use of State-approved medical marijuana to treat medical or psychiatric symptoms or conditions may relate to the Veterans participation in other clinical activities.”

The directive notes that “Veterans must not be denied VHA services solely because they are participating in State-approved marijuana programs” and that case-by-case decisions to modify treatment plans based on marijuana use should only be made “based on concerns regarding Veteran health and safety.” Potential interaction with other prescribed medications is an example given. When a patient reports medical marijuana use, or even raises the possibility, VA employees are required to make a note in their medical records.

The long-standing prohibition on recommending medical marijuana, however, remains in place. “To comply with Federal laws such as the Controlled Substances Act [which classifies marijuana as a highly addictive substance with no medical benefit],” the policy states, “[VA] providers are prohibited from completing forms or registering Veterans for participation in a State-approved marijuana program.”

That means veterans will still have to get their recommendation, needed to actually buy medical cannabis, from doctors outside the VHA — a costly and sometimes cumbersome process. And the VA still won’t pay for medical marijuana.

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