Scientists say the VA and the DOJ have a history of stonewalling anyone who wants to conduct trials of plant-derived cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Veterans who use marijuana often ask if they are putting their disability benefits at risk. Find out the answer in this article.
POLITICO Politico Logo
Scientists say the VA and the DOJ have a history of stonewalling anyone who wants to conduct trials of plant-derived cannabis for therapeutic purposes.
Marijuana plants grow at a cultivation facility. | John Locher/AP Photo
11/08/2021 04:30 AM EST
Updated: 11/08/2021 02:22 PM EST
Jason Dunlap found that cannabis eased his PTSD, chronic pain and insomnia, but he hid his pot use from VA doctors, believing it was taboo for veterans relying on government care.
It took some research for the retired Army sergeant first class to determine he could actually tell the VA he was using cannabis, but even then his doctors couldn’t tell him how to use it safely and effectively. Dunlap, 42, has instead turned to YouTube, research papers online, dispensary workers — and even actor Jim Belushi, now a notable cannabis industry figure who offers tutorials.
Millions of veterans are self-medicating their war-caused ailments with marijuana, and they are frustrated the VA continues to dismiss the drug’s possible benefits. The VA will not expand the piecemeal cannabis research it is undertaking, despite recent bipartisan calls from Congress, doctors and veterans. And without that research, the VA continues to deny cannabis recommendations to veterans in 36 states that allow medical marijuana.
Veterans say that has forced many to suffer, while some researchers suggest the VA also may be ignoring potential ill effects when used inappropriately.
“It’s doing wonders, but also there’s so very little we know about what’s going on,” said Dunlap, who lives in Maryland.
The federal government may be resistant not just because research could open the door to cannabis use by veterans — but lead to wider legalization. The lack of empirical, FDA-approved research is one of the most-cited reasons for many lawmakers, even President Joe Biden, to refrain from taking federal action on cannabis.
By Bruce Kennedy
Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would instruct the VA to study cannabis for PTSD, depression and a number of other diseases vets often suffer from, just one of multiple proposals in the House and Senate that would expand research into cannabis for vets. Despite broad bipartisan support, however, none has reached a floor vote in either chamber.
“The VA keeps saying, ‘We have the authority, we don’t need you to micromanage us.’ But we do — because they’re not doing their job,” Correa said.
Correa’s bill, which advanced out of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday, is just one of multiple proposals in the House and Senate that would expand research into cannabis for vets. Also on Thursday, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced an amendment to a must-pass defense spending bill that would allow VA physicians to recommend medical marijuana under state-regulated programs and bolster research. Despite broad bipartisan support, however, none of these proposals have reached a floor vote in either chamber.
The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan has exacerbated the demand for more understanding of using cannabis for treatment. Calls to the Veterans Crisis Line, which is operated by the VA, increased by six percent in the weeks immediately following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and veterans of America’s longest war use cannabis at the Advocates, Hill aides and former VA staff told POLITICO the VA defers on this issue to the Justice Department, which classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. A Schedule I drug by definition has no medicinal value, which in turn prevents the VA from treating patients with cannabis.
For veterans receiving VA health care, cannabis still occupies a gray area. Official guidance states that veterans can talk to their VA doctor about their cannabis use without repercussions, but many vets say they fear mentioning it because it is still federally illegal. VA doctors, meanwhile, still cannot prescribe cannabis or issue medical marijuana cards in any of the 36 states that have legalized medical marijuana.
An average of 18 veterans a day committed suicide in 2018,
“They just hear the word ‘cannabis’ and recoil,” said one scientist who spoke to POLITICO but requested their name be withheld in order to not jeopardize ongoing efforts to do research with the VA. “It’s got to be the VA Secretary ordering his staff to do it, and [the] VA Secretary probably won’t do that unless he gets the political cover from Congress.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) says his bill would give the VA that cover. This is the second time he’s introduced the bill in Congress — but it has yet to receive a hearing.
“I think sometimes on something controversial, agencies want to make sure they have legal cover,” said Sullivan, who cosponsors the bill with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “That’s what we’re trying to provide them.”
By Bryan Bender
A similar bill was approved by the House VA committee last year and garnered more than 100 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, but did not receive a floor vote.
“It drives me crazy,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), the unofficial cannabis czar on Capitol Hill, who has worked on numerous pieces of cannabis legislation that would expand medical marijuana research — one of which passed the House last year but did not make it to the president’s desk. “[The VA] could, and they should.”
Gruber received approval from the FDA for a cannabis study that was not veterans-specific in 2015, but says the DEA turned around and denied the study proposal, and it was another two and a half years before she finally received approval. Other scientists say they’ve been told by state VA medical facilities that they could not post FDA-sanctioned flyers calling for volunteers to participate in FDA-approved cannabis studies.
“There’s an awful lot of gaps in the research,” Gruber said.
She said that cannabis can be a panacea for some — helping with sleep, PTSD and more — but it also has the potential to be a problem for others, especially veterans with a family history of certain mental health disorders. It’s a big problem, she said, that America does not have comprehensive scientific data on something its veterans are using so widely.
”Imagine a world where people are using anything at that level without supporting information from an empirically sound source to guide them,” Gruber added.
Without research, lawmakers don’t have hard facts on the pros and cons of cannabis, and that unknown makes them loathe to back policy changes they believe could come back to bite them.
The VA’s legal standing is also a gray area. The agency already conducts research into synthetic cannabinoids, and holds a Schedule I research license — which theoretically gives it the ability to research any Schedule I drug. But a Schedule I drug has “no medical use,” and therein lies the hangup: If the VA researches cannabis for medical purposes, like the NIH proposes, they could run into conflict with the DOJ’s definition of a Schedule I drug.
“I’d probably stay completely the hell away from it [if I was the VA],” Correa said. “Why would you get in the middle of a dogfight?”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated the timeline for when Staci Gruber received approval from the FDA and DEA for a cannabis study that was not veterans-specific. She received approval from the FDA in 2015, but the DEA denied the study proposal. It was another two and a half years before she finally received full approval.
Will I Lose My VA Disability Benefits If I Use Marijuana?
Many veterans wonder if marijuana use will affect their VA disability compensation. Even though some states have legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana use, it is still considered a Schedule One Controlled Substance under federal law. This means the federal government views it as illegal. However, veterans will not be denied VA benefits for their marijuana use.
Talk to Us About Your Claim:
In this article about pot and VA disability
States that have legalized marijuana
The following states have fully legalized marijuana, meaning that it is decriminalized and can be legally used for medicinal purposes or otherwise.
Because marijuana laws can change at a rapid pace, they can be confusing to follow. The Defense Information Systems Agency has an interactive map of all 50 states’ marijuana legalization status that updates monthly for easy access.
If I use marijuana, what does that mean for my VA benefits?
Because marijuana is considered a Schedule One Controlled Substance at the federal level, the VA is required to follow all federal laws and regulations, including those about marijuana. This means that VA health care providers are not allowed to recommend or assist veterans in obtaining it.
However, if a veteran participates in a state marijuana program, that does not affect eligibility for VA services and care. VA providers are encouraged to discuss marijuana use with veterans to aid in comprehensive care planning and to adjust treatment plans as needed.
Here are some other important facts that veterans need to know about marijuana use:
- VA health care providers will document marijuana use in a veteran’s medical record for use in treatment planning. This information will always be confidential and protected under patient privacy and confidentiality laws and regulations.
- VA health care providers may not recommend medical marijuana.
- VA pharmacies may not fill prescriptions for medical marijuana.
- The use or possession of marijuana is prohibited at all VA medical centers, grounds, and locations.
- VA health care providers may not complete paperwork or forms required for veteran patients to participate in state-approved marijuana programs.
- The VA will not pay for medical marijuana prescriptions from any source.
Does the VA drug test?
When you have routine lab work done such as blood tests or urinalyses at any VA hospital or clinic, they may check for drugs. It is important to note that blood tests and urinalyses are performed to check for conditions and abnormalities, not to specifically check for the presence of drugs.
The VA uses a standardized four-panel drug detection kit. This test shows the presence of narcotics (Vicodin, morphine, Oxycontin, and others), marijuana, cocaine (or crack), and amphetamines. Some tests might detect benzodiazepines such as Valium and similar drugs.
Another purpose of routine blood tests and urinalyses is to ensure that you are taking your prescribed medications properly. The VA’s policy states that it is up to each treating doctor to decide how to handle a veteran’s marijuana use. VA doctors cannot prescribe medicinal marijuana, but they can choose to ignore marijuana use if they do not see a problem.
If they do see a problem, they most likely would be concerned about the potential interference of using prescribed medications and marijuana. You would most likely be instructed to make the choice of using marijuana or prescribed medications. This is strictly a therapeutic decision by the provider. As mentioned above, it should be clear that the VA does not routinely test for illegal drugs.
VA-certified disability benefits attorney Zack evans describes the VA Rating Formula for Mental Disorders and Disabilities.
Are marijuana use and willful misconduct related?
Unfortunately, there is not a simple answer to this question. Willful misconduct is an intentional act or omission which is in disregard of a known risk. If you receive a willful misconduct finding, you may not be eligible for VA disability benefits. The Code of Federal Regulations states that a mere technical violation of police ordinances or regulations will not necessarily constitute willful misconduct.
You will not receive a willful misconduct finding for using marijuana if it did not cause injury, death, or disease. The VA may find that marijuana use is related to trying to cope with PTSD or other conditions. This would be a condition eligible for a VA rating and compensation. On the flip side, the VA can punish you if the willful misconduct was found to be a result of abusing drugs for fun and you were not using the drugs as a coping mechanism for something you were diagnosed with.
To summarize, it is possible to receive a willful misconduct finding from marijuana use if it causes an injury, disease, or death. As stated above, there are exceptions to this rule.
Marijuana for PTSD symptoms
Veterans who suffer from PTSD have been reporting for years that cannabis helps manage their PTSD. There have been multiple studies examining the relationship between cannabis and PTSD symptoms. One study found that cannabis reduced the severity of intrusions, which are described as returning thoughts of a traumatic event, by about 62%, irritability by 67%, flashbacks by 51%, and anxiety by 57%. The study suggested that cannabis does reduce PTSD symptoms acutely, but it might not have longer-term beneficial effects.
A study published in December 2020 had promising news for the long-term benefits of cannabis for PTSD. The findings concluded that people with PTSD saw a greater reduction in their symptoms, but they were 2.57 times more likely to recover from PTSD during the study than those who were not using cannabis.
Limited research makes it difficult to assess the potential for cannabis as a method of treatment for PTSD. Other studies show somewhat inconclusive results on the effectiveness of cannabis in treating PTSD symptoms.
Advocating for veterans who use medical marijuana
Advocates who support using medical marijuana to treat veterans have stepped up their efforts in recent years. The initiatives range from Congressional law proposals to grass-roots projects.
The VA Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2021
The VA Medical Cannabis Research Act of 2021 was introduced into the Senate on April 29, 2021. This is not the first time legislation like this has been considered by Congress.
The purpose of the bill is to require the VA to perform clinical research on the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis in treating veterans for PTSD and chronic pain. A growing number of veterans use medical cannabis to treat their symptoms. The bill would require the VA to acknowledge that. At the time of this article’s publication, the bill was still being considered in the Senate. The Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing in June 2021.
The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act of 2021
The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act was first introduced in the Senate in February 2019 and was reintroduced into the current Congress in April of 2021. The bill would allow doctors at the VA to prescribe medical marijuana to veterans in states that have established medical marijuana programs. The bill would also create a temporary five-year safe harbor protection for veterans who use medical marijuana and would encourage the VA to research how medical marijuana could help veterans better manage chronic pain and reduce opioid abuse.
The bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committees on the Judiciary, and Veterans’ Affairs. Most recently, the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Health, but at the time of this article’s publication, the Senate had taken no further action.
Veterans Cannabis Project
The Veterans Cannabis Project, founded by former Navy SEAL Nick Etten, supports giving veterans access to medical cannabis for treatment. Thirty-four U.S. states allow the use of medical cannabis and 83% of U.S. veterans support medical cannabis programs.
You can apply to become an advocate of the Veterans Cannabis Project here. As an advocate, you can get the chance to tell your story to policymakers and the public about why you advocate for cannabis treatment for veterans.
Veterans Cannabis Coalition
Eric Goepel, who served in the U.S. Army for 7 years, founded the Veterans Cannabis Coalition, which is dedicated to ending cannabis prohibition–especially for veterans. The purpose of the organization is to work with veteran leaders around the nation to advocate, organize, and educate on behalf of veterans and all patients of cannabis treatment.
What About CBD for Veterans?
Cannabidiol (CBD) is the naturally occurring compound found in the flower of cannabis. CBD is currently thought to be a safe and non-addictive substance. The difference between CBD and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is that CBD is non-intoxicating, unlike THC. THC is the compound in cannabis that makes a person feel “high” or “stoned” while using marijuana.
VA clinicians are not allowed to prescribe any products containing THC, CBD, or any other cannabinoids. However, research has suggested CBD can help with PTSD symptoms.
The FDA and National Center for Health Research have both concluded that there is not enough evidence to say with certainty that CBD is 100% safe. The World Health Organization has also published a report on CBD.
High THC use may be connected to long-term negative psychiatric effects. This is especially true for adolescents who consume large amounts of THC. However, there is no conclusive evidence that cannabis causes schizophrenia or other psychiatric disorders.
Marijuana vs. opioids
Veterans who suffer from PTSD have a greater risk of turning to alcohol and/or opioids to manage symptoms. Opioids are highly addictive and can cause a fatal overdose. Cannabis is a safer alternative because it greatly reduces the chance of dependence and eliminates the risk of fatal overdose compared to opioid-based medications. Also, a study found that medical cannabis patients reported that cannabis was just as effective, if not more, than opioid-based medications for pain.
Is marijuana more effective than other PTSD medications?
There is not a definite answer to this question because medications and cannabis can affect everyone differently. If standard PTSD medications work for you and do not cause any problems, keep following the medical advice from your doctor. If marijuana helps your PTSD symptoms more than standard medications, talk to your doctor. We aren’t medical experts. We’re here to help veterans get their VA disability benefits, not to give medical advice.
How a VA benefits attorney can help
Woods and Woods has helped thousands of veterans with their VA disability applications and appeals. Call us today to discuss your VA disability appeal or your first application. The call is free and we won’t charge you a single fee until we win your case.
All of our attorneys are VA-certified. Call us and join the thousands of veterans we have helped to receive the VA disability benefits they deserve.
Talk to Us About Your Claim:
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Veterans will not be denied VA benefits for their marijuana use. Talk to your doctor and follow their medical advice.
It is possible to receive a willful finding if a veteran’s marijuana use causes an injury, disease, or death. A veteran using drugs recreationally might be considered willful misconduct if the veteran is recreationally using drugs. However, the VA may find that marijuana use is related to trying to cope with PTSD or other conditions.