New bill would allow the VA to recommend medical marijuana for patients

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A small suitcase with Mason jars of medical marijuana at the Laguna Woods, Calif., retirement community's medical marijuana collective. (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times/TNS)
A small suitcase with Mason jars of medical marijuana at the Laguna Woods, Calif., retirement community's medical marijuana collective. (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times/TNS)

New bill would allow the VA to recommend medical marijuana for patients

by: Emily Wax-Thibodeaux | .
The Washington Post | .
published: November 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — Arguing that medical marijuana may help wounded warriors with anxiety and stress disorders to "survive and thrive," Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., have introduced legislation that would allow Department of Veterans Affairs’ doctors to recommend the drug for some patients.

The Veterans Equal Access Act and would challenge the VA’s policy that forbids doctors from consulting about medical pot use. Earlier this month, The Washington Post reported about the issue.

"We should be allowing these wounded warriors access to the medicine that will help them survive and thrive, including medical marijuana, not treating them like criminals and forcing them into the shadows," said Blumenauer in a statement.

The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin and LSD, deeming that it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. That means that VA, which runs the largest network of hospitals and health clinics in the country, cannot prescribe pot as a treatment, even for veterans who live in a state where medical marijuana is legal. VA says that its physicians and chronic-pain specialists "are prohibited from recommending and prescribing medical marijuana for PTSD or other pain-related issues."

Medical staff are also prohibited from completing paperwork required to enroll in state marijuana programs because they are "federal employees who must comply with federal law," said Gina Jackson, a VA spokeswoman.

Over 20 percent of the 2.8 million American veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD and depression, according to the Blumenauer statement. In addition, a recent study found that of the nearly one million veterans who receive opioids to treat painful conditions, more than half continue to consume chronically or beyond 90 days, their statement said.

Another study found that the death rate from opiate overdoses among VA patients is nearly double the national average.

"In states where patients can legally access medical marijuana for painful conditions, often as a less-addictive alternative, the hands of VA physicians should not be tied," the statement said.

Researchers in the United States and several other countries have found evidence that cannabis can help treat post-traumatic stress disorder and pain, although studies - such as those looking into the best strains and proper dosages - remain in the early stages.

Michael Krawitz, executive director of Veterans For Medical Cannabis Access, said they "are very proud to stand by Congressman Blumenauer and support the Veterans Equal Access Act."

"The Veterans Health Administration has made it very clear that, as federal employees, they lack the free speech necessary to write the recommendations for Veterans to comply with state programs," said Krawitz. "This legislation is needed to correct that legal situation and repair this VA doctor patient relationship."

The status quo has numerous harmful effects, said Blumenauer. "It forces veterans into the black market to self-medicate," he said. "It prevents doctors from giving their best and honest advice and recommendations. And it pushes both doctors and their patients toward drugs that are potentially more harmful and more addictive. It’s insane, and it has to stop."

Though pot is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, 23 states permit medical marijuana use, including Oregon and California.