Veterans pressing Congress to let VA doctors recommend medical marijuana for their patients in states where the drug is considered legal had their hopes dashed last month when Congress passed a pared version of the Veterans Affairs funding bill without the marijuana provision.
The Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill originally included the Veterans Equal Access amendment, which would have let Veterans Affairs physicians discuss medical marijuana with their patients and complete the paperwork required by some states to purchase it.
The amendment passed the House in May, 295-129, and the Senate, 89-8. But in June, the provision was removed from the final version of the larger appropriations bill by the conference committee established to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions.
Supporters such as Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., lobbied congressional leadership to reinstate the amendment but they were unsuccessful.
"It’s incredibly frustrating and disappointing that despite broad bipartisan, bicameral support, a handful of out-of-touch lawmakers put politics over the well-being of America’s wounded warriors. Our veterans deserve better," said Blumenauer after the Continuing Appropriations and Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2017 passed.
Veterans seeking to use marijuana to alleviate pain and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder must continue going to a private physician for a recommendation and will continue to pay out-of-pocket for the drug.
Even if the measure had passed, veterans would have been required to pay for the marijuana themselves, as the drug remains illegal under federal law.
By regulation, veterans cannot lose their VA disability or health benefits if they are found to use medical marijuana.
Their doctors can decide, however, to reduce a patient's access to pain medications, including opioids, if the veteran uses medical marijuana and the physician believes they may be at risk for drug interaction. The decision is made on a case-by-case basis.
Medical marijuana is legal in 25 states plus the District of Columbia, although states differ on the medical conditions for which it can be prescribed.
The Veterans Affairs Department recommends its physicians use "evidence-based" practices — therapies proved by scientific research to be effective — to treat mental and physical health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and pain.
There has been no research in the U.S. on the effectiveness of medical marijuana for relieving symptoms of PTSD or other conditions, although some veterans groups and marijuana legalization advocates say it helps relieve symptoms of combat-related PTSD and anxiety.
A study is underway in Arizona and Maryland on the effectiveness of marijuana to treat PTSD. Results from that research are not expected for at least 18 months to two years.
Blumenauer pledged to keep fighting to overturn VA’s policy that restricts doctors from recommending the drug for their patients.
"We will continue to seek every opportunity to make sure they have fair and equal treatment and the ability to consult with, and seek a recommendation from, their personal VA physician about medical marijuana," he said.