As election season nears, the medical marijuana debate is heating up. Florida is one of several states considering legalization, and my research shows that almost half of the states have already legalized medical marijuana. Because this issue is so controversial and polarizing, it made me wonder whether the VA has addressed the issue at all, and if so, where it stands.
I should note that the purpose of this blog is not to endorse or condone medical marijuana. On a practical level, I am blogging about this topic because the reality is that many disabled veterans are using marijuana to self-medicate and treat service-connected disabilities, for example, PTSD, chronic pain, anxiety, and the list could go on. For these veterans, most feel that marijuana offers better relief than the pills prescribed by their VA medical providers. In light of the reality “on the ground,” I feel it is important for veterans to know where the VA stands on the issues and how use of medical marijuana may impact their journey for health care and/or compensation benefits through the VA.
From the medical perspective, despite the reported benefits and common use of medical marijuana, I’ve never seen a VA doctor openly recommend this as a form of treatment. In fact, my experience is that VA medical providers tend to openly discourage use altogether.
As I researched this issue even further, I discovered VHA Directive 2011-004. In this Directive, VA makes it clear that its medical providers are not allowed to fill out forms, recommend, or give opinions regarding participation in medical marijuana programs, even in states where medical marijuana is legal. The Directive also states that for veterans who choose to use medical marijuana and participate in VA treatment programs at the same time, although they are not barred from VA treatment, decisions to modify VA treatment options could be a consequence. In other words, veterans may not be able to continue receiving some medications and/or treatments through the VA if they choose to use medical marijuana; even if they are participating in a legal and state-sanctioned program. Essentially, VA providers are not allowed to even have a real discussion with their patients about medical marijuana, at least not to endorse it.
From the disability compensation perspective, if a veteran is using marijuana to self-medicate a service-connected condition, it is possible for any new conditions that develop as a result of marijuana use to also be service-connected under a theory of secondary service connection. So for example, if a veteran is smoking marijuana to self-medicate PTSD, and then later develops chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a result of the marijuana, he may be able to obtain service connection for his COPD. Of course the possibility of service connection as linked to marijuana use may make some uneasy; however, it is possible under the law. The take away is that veterans should know that use of marijuana, depending on the circumstances, does not necessarily present a bar to VA disability benefits.
It is my understanding that the federal government recently approved a study to explore medical marijuana as a treatment for veterans with PTSD. It will be interesting to see what the federal government comes up with in this regard, and how the findings may or may not change the VA’s positions on this issue. As more and more states begin to legalize medical marijuana, I suspect the VA may have to revisit its policies in this regard.