VA Hospitals Will Continue to Reject Medical Marijuana

Although Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner recently signed a bill into law allowing patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to participate in the state’s medical marijuana program, reports indicate that the brass overseeing Veterans Affairs Hospitals throughout the state will not allow any of its physicians to discuss the herb with patients suffering from this disorder.

Last week, just days after a Cook County Judge ordered the state to include PTSD as a qualified condition under the state’s medical marijuana program, Governor Rauner swooped in and put his signature on a bill, which received overwhelming support this year in the General Assembly, expanding the Illinois medical marijuana pilot program to allow patients with PTSD and terminal illnesses to purchase cannabis from their friendly neighborhood dispensary. Rauner’s signature also guarantees the program will continue to function until at least 2020.

Allowing potentially thousands of patients with PTSD to get their hands on marijuana is a significant victory in the grand scheme of keeping the state’s medical marijuana industry from sinking like a stone, but many veterans will likely find it a painstaking task to calm their post-war terror with weed without fighting the Department of Veterans Affair. This is because the federal government still refuses to recognize the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant and therefore will not allow the VA to endorse the herb as a therapeutic substance.

Some veterans have refused to allow Uncle Sam’s anti-pot politics to get in the way of using marijuana to treat the symptoms of PTSD, while others have backed away from cannabis altogether because they cannot afford to risk the loss of VA benefits. As it stands, it is mandatory under current VA guidelines for all veterans in its care to divulge the use of marijuana and any other substances to remain eligible for treatment. Unfortunately, the department has made it clear that testing positive for THC “can and will affect the clinical treatment decisions made by VA healthcare providers.”

This means that although the VA cannot refuse to treat a patient who is technically under the influence of marijuana, it can deny them access to prescription medications and other important treatments until that person can provide them with a clean test result. So, veterans who decide to enroll in Illinois’ medical marijuana program — a relatively simple task since the state does not require those under the care of a VA facility to provide a written certification from a doctor — still run the risk of being penalized by the VA when he or she reveals involvement with the program. The same applies in any state.

“If they’re being treated at a VA facility, and they’re understanding of the rules and regulations, then I’m thinking the majority of the time they’re gonna choose not to use it,” Edwin Cook, a veteran with Champaign’s VFW, told Illinois Homepage.

There was some promising movement in Congress earlier this year aimed at preventing the Department of Veterans Affairs from keeping its physicians from becoming pro-pot ambassadors. However, while both chambers approved an amendment (Veterans Equal Access Amendment) geared for this purpose, it was later secretly stripped from the guts of a major military spending bill and left for dead for at least another year. Even now, with a handful of federal lawmakers pushing the conference committee to put the amendment back into the plan, there are no guarantees this will happen – setting the stage for the VA to continue rejecting medical marijuana as part of the overall treatment plan for many veterans in need.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that nearly 20 percent of those who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom suffer from PTSD. The same report shows this anxiety disorder plagues at least 12 percent of Gulf War Veterans and 15 percent of those who duked it out in Vietnam. Yet, the condition stretches far beyond the reflective horrors of military combat missions. PTSD is said to impact roughly 78 percent of the men and women who have served our country that report being victimized by sexual assault.

The VA was supposed to update its policy on medical marijuana earlier this year, but a procedural loophole has allowed the department to maintain its current standards until a new draft is put into place.

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