This Veterans Day, Demand Vets Be Protected From Antiquated Marijuana Laws

As we honor them for their service this Veterans Day, today is a good day to call for equal protection for the men and women who served this country.

Even though voters have approved adult use of marijuana in four states and the District of Columbia, veterans in 27 states without medical marijuana programs continue to assume unnecessary risks if they use marijuana. Veterans also are not protected for recreational use of marijuana in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska or Washington DC.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is supposed to give veterans equal benefits no matter where they live in the United States. It is time for the VA to change their rules so that veterans who find value using marijuana are guaranteed the health care benefits they earned by serving their country.

VA policies have not been updated to reflect changes in state laws regarding adult use of marijuana. Although it is not highly likely, veterans still may face negative repercussions, including loss of benefits or housing, if they test positive for marijuana or are found in possession of marijuana on federal property. And, even in states with medical marijuana laws, VA clinicians are still forbidden to discuss the benefits of this medicine with their patients.

In a perfect world, or if the VA just adjusted their policy to accept use of marijuana legal or otherwise, all veterans would be able to talk about the medical use of marijuana with their health care team without fear. VA clinicians should be able to help their patients optimize their marijuana use in conjunction with other therapies.

Alas it is not a perfect world. For now, veterans who need information about marijuana as medicine must find that information outside of the VA.

Michael Krawitz, director of Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, suggests veterans tell their VA clinicians only what a provider needs to know to treat the Vet's medical condition. Veterans should keep in mind that any arbitrary denial of narcotics or automatic change in treatment plan based upon "policy" is not supported by VA doctrine, and can be easily fought by complaining to the correct person in the chain of command.

VA policy provides some room for veterans to integrate medical use of cannabis into their VA treatment plan, however veterans still have obstacles including zero tolerance housing policies, workplace drug testing and infringement of their right to bear arms.

A recent spate of complaints from veterans led Krawitz and his fellow advocates to discover anad hoc policy instituted by a mid-level VA bureaucrat in charge of the Southern California and western Nevada VA health care system that contradicts the VA's medical marijuana policy. Krawitz was pleasantly surprised to find a receptive ear when he called the VA's leadership for help, but it is too soon to tell if the intervention will reverse the policy so that the 1.5 million vets in that particular region won't continue to be harassed for using medical marijuana.

"The VA's medical marijuana policy sets a standard" Krawitz said. "However, there are many doctors who operate under the false impression that there is some law or regulation that prohibits them from prescribing opiates to medical marijuana patients but the VA policy was specifically crafted so veterans would notbe prohibited from receiving necessary pain medications."

This Veterans Day, many vets continue to assume unnecessary risks if they use marijuana. It is time for the VA to change their policy and remove all sanctions and penalties for marijuana use among veterans.

Jessica Gelay is a policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.