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Culture » Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals 2/3-2/10



Letter to the VA:

End Prohibition

One of the key benefits of military service is free health care provided by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). However, for our many veterans who return from their deployment with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other painful and debilitating medical conditions, that benefit is seriously limited by the federal government's ongoing prohibition on medicinal use of cannabis.

According to a directive issued by the VA in 2011, physicians who provide care to veterans cannot recommend medical marijuana to a veteran even if, in their professional medical judgment, marijuana would be beneficial. This means that VA physicians are not allowed to complete the paperwork necessary for a veteran to obtain a prescription for medical marijuana. VA physicians are not even allowed to discuss medical marijuana with their patients.

This makes the VA unique among federal health care programs. Physicians providing care under Medicaid, Medicare, and Children's Health Insurance Program are allowed to have such conversations with their parents, and they are not punished if they decide to recommend medical marijuana.

Many members of Congress believe the VA should do away with its prohibition on medical marijuana in states where medical marijuana is legal. In November, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, introduced the Veterans Equal Access Amendment to end the prohibition and to prevent the VA from taking any action to deny service to a veteran who participates in a state medical marijuana program. That bill passed the Senate unanimously, by a vote of 93-0.

Daines summarized both the legal and the fairness issues perfectly in an interview with Yahoo News:

"When veterans walk into a VA facility and talk with their doctor, they can't discuss all of the options available to them that they could discuss at a non-VA facility next door. Current VA policy is not only a clear violation of states' 10th Amendment rights — it's a violation of our veterans' First Amendment rights to talk openly and freely with their doctors. Veterans shouldn't be discriminated against just because they're seeking the care they deserve at VA facilities."

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer introduced the same legislation in the House of Representatives last year, but the amendment was narrowly defeated. Blumenauer, and others, will likely introduce this legislation again in 2016.

In the meantime, the VA directive was set to expire at the end of January 2016. In response, a bipartisan group of 21 Senators and House members, including Oregon Senators Merkley and Wyden and Rep. Blumenauer, has sent a letter to the VA urging it to end its likely unconstitutional prohibition now without the need for further Congressional action. The letter states that veterans deserve "to have full and frank discussions with their doctors without the fear of losing benefits" and notes that "you [the VA] are in a position to make this change when the current ... directive expires."

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that the VA will act. Back in 2012, the White House responded to a petition asking for an end to the VA's prohibitionist policy by saying that marijuana does not meet the standards of safe or effective medicine. In the absence of action from Congress, veterans' only hope seems to be a change of heart by President Obama in his final year in office.

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