VA Lightening Up Rules for Medical Marijuana

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New Federal guidelines will allow VA hospitals and its clinics to use medical marijuana in the 14 states where it's legal. However, the new guidance does not authorize VA doctors to begin prescribing medical marijuana, which is considered an illegal drug under federal law. But it will now make clear that in the 14 states where state and federal law are in conflict, VA clinics generally will allow the use of medical marijuana for veterans already taking it under other clinicians.

"For years, there have been veterans coming back from the Iraq war who needed medical marijuana and had to decide whether they were willing to cut down on their VA medications," John Targowski, a legal adviser to the group Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access.

Dr. Robert A. Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health, sent a letter to Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access this month that spells out the department's policy. The new guidelines will be given out to the VA's care facilities around the country.

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Under the new rules, veterans can be denied prescription painkillers if they are found to be using illegal drugs. Until recently, those drugs included marijuana in any form. However, the Department of Veterans Affairs will still not permit veterans in states that do not allow medical marijuana to use the natural painkiller, but veterans who are living in medical marijuana states will be able to use it as a painkiller and still receive other prescription painkillers if their situation calls for it.

"If a veteran obtains and uses medical marijuana in a manner consistent with state law, testing positive for marijuana would not preclude the veteran from receiving opioids for pain management" in a VA facility, Petzel wrote. "The discretion to prescribe, or not prescribe, opioids in conjunction with medical marijuana, should be determined on clinical grounds."

Veterans are praising the new policy. They say pot helps sooth physical and psychological pain and can alleviate the side effects of some medical treatments.

The 14 states permitting use of medical marijuana are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

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