Why Can’t the Veterans’ Administration Speak About Cannabis?

Despite running on a platform of guaranteed and quickly enacted federal cannabis reform, President Joe Biden hasn’t authorized or signed into law any large-scale reformative measures on par with the legislative possibilities of the MORE or Safe Banking Act. The mass pardon enacted last October was admittedly a step in the right direction, yet the pardon only applied to those who were convicted of simple possession of cannabis under federal and DC law. When compared to the number of those who were convicted of accompanying charges along with simple possession on the federal level such as interstate trafficking or perhaps a firearm-related charge, this pardon by President Biden doesn’t do nearly enough in the name of the sweeping criminal justice reform policies that was promised during his campaign.

The pardon could be granted to about 6,500 people in total, which again is a minuscule fraction of the total number of Americans convicted of and living with the heavy societal disadvantages of a drug conviction on both the federal and state levels. On a grander justice scale, this inch in the right direction of a pardon does depressingly little to remedy the many injustices and draconian criminal law policies that were created by the overall horribly cruel 1994 Crime Bill that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Not too surprisingly for anyone that has followed Biden’s decades-spanning career in Washington, the then-Delaware senator actually crafted the legislation for this bill in the Senate in collaboration with the National Association of Police Organizations. So in a way, Biden is attempting, albeit slowly, to right the infinite number of wrongs created from this bill that was groundbreaking for several wrong reasons.

Way back in 2008, the Justice Policy Institute criticized anti-crime policies that Hilary Clinton was running on and cited her husband’s administration as exponentially increasing the already startling number of incarcerated Americans.

“The Clinton Administration’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increases in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.”

Currently, one of the numerous ways in which the federal cannabis policy interferes with American life is in regards to the Veterans’ Administration. The federal government body created to assist our nation’s heroes after they arrive back home is in a very confusing spot when it comes to cannabis use among the veterans that the organization serves. Because cannabis is designated as Schedule I on the federally enacted Controlled Substances List and because the VA is a federally-funded organization, the doctors and employees of VA are prohibited from speaking about or recommending cannabis to any of their veteran patients.

This prohibitive policy is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that veterans themselves from all branches of the United States Armed Forces have become among the strongest and most passionate of cannabis activists. There are several nonprofits dedicated to cannabis reform and expanding medical cannabis access for veterans that are being led by those very vets themselves and one can almost always expect to see at least a few veterans lobbying for cannabis reform during nearly every state’s legislative session.

The fight for safe and legal access to cannabis for our nation’s brave heroes has become such a prevalent discussion among veterans that the VA actually released a statement on the Public Health section of their website regarding cannabis use that certainly couldn’t be misunderstood as supportive.

“Veterans should know that federal law classifies marijuana as a Schedule One Controlled Substance. This makes it illegal in the eyes of the federal government.

 The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is required to follow all federal laws including those regarding marijuana. As long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule I VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist Veterans to obtain it.” the statement read clear as day.              

Luckily, the statement isn’t outright prohibitive compared to previous presidential administrations, as it reassures that veterans eligibility for benefits won’t be impacted if the veteran is enrolled in a state-legal medical cannabis program and that vets should feel “encouraged” to discuss cannabis with their VA healthcare provider. However, for the VA provider themselves, they may not recommend medical cannabis in any facet. Even further, the statement restates that clinicians must only prescribe medications that have been fully approved by the FDA for medical use. Nor are the VA clinicians permitted to construct or assist in paperwork or forms that are necessary for veteran patients to have medical access to a state-approved marijuana program. Because of the Schedule I status, the VA is prohibited from funding any medical cannabis purchases.

And because of the updated directive that was announced last week, the prohibition of VA clinicians being able to recommend medical cannabis. Essentially all of the policies listed above will be remaining in place and it’s a decision that definitely contradicts the cannabis reform policies that Biden partially ran on. Despite the current presidential administration’s lack of movement on cannabis reform, Congress recently passed an amendment to the annual spending bill that would allow VA clinicians to finally be able to recommend cannabis to patients who could medically benefit from the plant.

The lead sponsor of this particular House amendment to the spending bill, Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) voiced both his frustration and the necessity of this groundbreaking amendment.

“The bureaucracy at the VA is not just creating confusion, it’s keeping veterans from being able to access a proven treatment option,” Mast explained to Marijuana Moment. “My bipartisan amendment passed the House with strong support and the Senate version of the package has a provision that mirrors it, so we’re confident we’ll succeed in finally addressing this outdated rule.”

The other sponsors of this amendment were Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), all of whom are co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Cannabis Caucus. In a rare instance of a Republican and a Democrat agreeing on something in Congress, Rep. Blumenauer voiced similar frustration. “Last week, I led a divided Congress to make progress on medical cannabis for our veterans,” Blumenauer said. “The Biden administration should be able to do the same. Our veterans deserve better.”

Only a matter of weeks ago, Blumenauer sent a disapproving letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough and Department of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about the VA’s lack of reform on cannabis matters and the stance stated in another guidance issued earlier this year that “benefits of cannabis were outweighed by the potential serious adverse effects.”

“For decades, I have heard from veterans across the country that medical cannabis has been a life-saving treatment for PTSD,” Blumenauer wrote. “I urge you to reconsider the antiquated and insufficient recommendation ‘against the use of cannabis or cannabis derivatives in treating patients with PTSD.’”

“To date, 38 states have adopted medical marijuana programs in recognition of marijuana’s medical use in treatment for numerous conditions. Many veterans report using cannabis for medical purposes as a substitute for prescription drugs and their side effects.”

 As it stands, the directive will stay in place and VA clinicians are unable to speak about the medicinal possibilities of cannabis for our nation’s bravest people. Perhaps Congressman Mast’s amendment will change this policy, but it remains the law of the land until then.

Aaron Pelley

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