2014 was a pretty horrendous year for a variety of different reasons, not the least of which being the ongoing miasma causing all sorts of problems within the VA’s healthcare system. And while Eric Shinseki might have been replaced with Robert McDonald before the New Year even started, the ridiculous wait times and never-ending deluges of paperwork that brought the VA into the news are still standing between patients and the treatment they need. But don’t worry too much about those veterans, because at least one aspect of VA policy enforcement is working just fine: the efficient denial of medical marijuana to vets suffering from severe emotional and physical pain.
While close to half of the states in this country now allow for some form of legalized cannabis use for people who qualify for certain medical ailments, the federal government (which controls the Veterans Administration) does not recognize any of these therapeutic exceptions. As a result veterans cannot be prescribed or recommended medical marijuana by their primary care physicians or specialists at the VA. And while most sentient people might think that a little herb might be more or less perfect for someone dealing with the trauma of combat, the good folks in the House of Representatives (where only 18% of the members are Veterans) disagree.
So where does this leave these men and women who have found that medical grade weed can do wonders for their ailments, especially regarding the management of chronic pain? Well like most anything having to do with medpot, the users exist in a legal void where their right to proper care and medical privacy are put a dangerous conflict with any mention of marijuana. Reports to NORML out of VA facilities in California (specifically Long Beach and Lorma Linda), indicate that vets now being told by their doctors that that they will lose access to necessary pain medications if they also choose to simultaneously use medpot.
Now this concern about the simultaneous use of two different types of medication (cannabis and opiates) is not grounded in either a legitimate public health concern nor is it even official VA policy. In fact the VA specifically addressed this potential issue in a 2011 directive, stating that:
(P)atients participating in State marijuana programs must not (emphasis added) be denied VHA services, the decisions to modify treatment plans in those situations need to be made by individual providers in partnership with their patients. VHA endorses a step-care model for the treatment of patients with chronic pain: any prescription(s) for chronic pain needs be managed under the auspices of such programs described in current VHA policy regarding Pain Management.
So this issue of pain management should be left between the individual patient and his/her doctor, and those parties should try and ramp down the use of opiate-based medications, which is something weed happens to especially good at doing. But as it turns out Jeff Gering, the Director of the San Diego VA Health Care System, disagrees with this directive and is instead requiring doctors to take the opposite approach based on vague “safety reasons.”
Legally there is not much that these patients can even do to either appeal the denial of their benefits or avoid having to sign “pain agreements” just to receive the medication that they need. The prohibitionists have dictated a stupid policy, and are banking on the bureaucratic morass in the VA to delay any legal examination over the public health conflicts created by this worthless endeavor to police the use of weed among injured vets. Like too many issues within the murky legal world of state medical marijuana laws and Federal agencies, this one will not be resolved unless (gulp) Congress takes action.
Stefan BC is a marijuana advocate and juvenile dependency lawyer in Long Beach California. Follow him at @Stefan_BC or his new firm @Cannabarrister on twitter