Veterans Affairs officials are denying a report that they have softened their stance on medical marijuana, insisting that updated guidance on the drug does not amount to a new policy change.

On Tuesday, Marijuana Majority founder Tom Angell posted on a new five-page guidance issued by the department earlier this month focused on VA physicians “discussing the use of marijuana and its impact on health, including veteran-specific treatment plans.”

The document also encourages VA doctors to “discuss marijuana use with any veterans requesting information” due to “its clinical relevance to patient care.”

But VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the new guidance is not a new endorsement of medical marijuana by the department or even a change in existing VA policies.

“It is updated guidance to encourage veterans to let their VA physicians know if they are using marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes, just as VA physicians would want to know about any other use by veteran patients of federally illegal drugs,” he said.

The goal is to get a full picture of patient health, including all legal and illegal medications. Calling the updated guidance document a more open approach to marijuana use is “a mischaracterization,” he said.

“VA physicians can also gather statistics and other information from veterans about their use of marijuana or other federally illegal drugs as part of understanding the effects of that drug use on their overall health. VA’s position on marijuana remains unchanged,” Cashour said.

That position has been outlined multiple times in recent months by VA Secretary David Shulkin. VA doctors cannot prescribe, recommend or assist with getting medical marijuana because of federal prohibitions against the drug.

Shulkin has said he is interested in looking into the possible benefits for cannabis in a range of veterans’ ailments, but pro-marijuana groups and veterans advocates have sharply criticized the department for failing to follow through on those comments with meaningful research changes.

The new VA document reiterates that VA doctors cannot assist veterans in obtaining medical marijuana even in states where it is legal but also notes that “veterans must not be denied Veterans Health Administration services solely because they are participating in state-approved marijuana programs.”

It also notes that possession of marijuana on VA property is a federal crime, even in states where it is legal.

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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