Veterans Affairs employees can still be fired for using marijuana even in states where the drug is legal, department officials said in a new message sent out to employees this week.

The memo, described as a “self-explanatory, simple reminder” by VA leadership, applies to all department staffers and was signed by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. It specifies that employment with the department requires that workers “refrain from using illegal drugs on and off duty,” including marijuana.

“There is no legitimate medical explanation for a marijuana positive test result, other than a verified prescription of certain FDA-approved drugs,” the message stated. “A prescription for medical marijuana is not an acceptable medical explanation for a positive drug test.”

VA officials would not comment on the timing of the message and whether they have seen an increase in positive drug tests in recent months. They also did not say if there are planning any changes in drug testing for employees.

The message comes as cannabis advocates continue to push VA officials to broaden testing of the drug for a variety of service-connected injuries and conditions. Currently, 34 states allow cannabis for medicinal uses. Only 10 states have not adopted some legal use of the drug.

But federal law still lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substance Act, limiting access and research. VA health care providers may not recommend its use or help veterans in obtaining it. And possession of marijuana on VA property is considered a federal crime.

“Marijuana is illegal under federal law,” the new VA memo stated. “Even though some states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes, marijuana, marijuana extracts, and tetrahydrocannabinols are illegal for human use under federal law.

“VA employees are not permitted to use marijuana on or off duty under the provisions of VA’s Drug-Free Workplace Program.”

In January, House lawmakers held a public hearing on the issue, including discussions on six different bills to ease those federal restrictions on cannabis use and research. That included the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act — sponsored by Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz — which among other provisions would allow VA physicians to discuss medical marijuana with patients.

VA officials have said that if veterans are using marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, they should disclose that to their VA medical teams to ensure those physicians have a full view of their health situation.

Department releases on marijuana use state that doctors will record that drug use in VA medical files but “as with all clinical information, this is part of the confidential medical record and protected under patient privacy and confidentiality laws and regulations.”

When asked if the recent message regarding potential disciplinary action among staff could discourage patients from discussing their own marijuana use, VA press secretary Christina Mandreucci said that is not a concern, since the memo applies only to employees.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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