April 16, 2020

Mass. Lawmakers Urge VA to Allow its Health Providers to Recommend Medical Marijuana to Veteran Patients During Coronavirus Pandemic

Text of Letter (PDF)

Boston, MA - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), along with Representatives Katherine Clark (D-MA-05), James P. McGovern (D-MA-02), Seth Moulton (D-MA-06), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-07), and Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-MA-04), sent a letter urging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to allow VA clinical staff to offer verbal recommendations to veterans and advise them on paperwork related to the use of medical marijuana through state-approved medical marijuana programs for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.  

"As this global pandemic continues to adversely affect veterans' behavioral and physical health conditions, we believe that veterans who legally use cannabis in the Commonwealth to treat their ailments deserve to receive more robust assistance from qualified medical personnel at their local VA," the lawmakers wrote to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

Although current VA policy allows VA providers to "discuss" marijuana use with their veteran patients, that same policy also prohibits VA health care providers "from recommending, making referrals to or completing paperwork for veteran participation in State marijuana programs." While veterans are not supposed to be denied benefits only because they participate in a state-approved marijuana program, some veterans may be reluctant to seek medical marijuana, in part, because they are concerned that it could threaten their veteran status and their access to other federal benefits due to marijuana remaining prohibited under federal law.

Veterans in Massachusetts use medical marijuana to treat a variety of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, chronic pain, and others, which can be exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. While it is legal to sell and consume marijuana for recreational and medical purposes in Massachusetts, recreational marijuana stores are temporarily closed in the Commonwealth during the public health emergency, and medical marijuana-related purchases and visits are not covered by VA health care or by private insurance.

In their letter, the lawmakers urged VA Secretary Wilkie to issue a directive explicitly authorizing its health care providers to make sensible, clinically sound verbal recommendations to veterans related to participation in state-approved medical marijuana programs and services and to provide advice to veterans as they complete forms and other paperwork reflecting those recommendations. In addition, the lawmakers requested that VA authorize their clinicians to make verbal referrals to knowledgeable non-VA providers who are registered with a state-approved program and can offer options that minimize, or completely waive, the cost of medical marijuana to the veteran.

"By authorizing these tailored, temporary actions, the VA could help Massachusetts veterans who use, or are interested in using, medical marijuana receive more comprehensive clinical advice from their VA providers, reduce opioid addiction and substance use disorders, and achieve better health outcomes," the lawmakers continued.

The lawmakers urged the VA's directive to advise clinicians who provide this limited assistance that they will not be subject to disciplinary action, and urged the VA to work with the Justice Department to formally advise VA providers who conduct these clinical activities that they will not face criminal prosecution under federal marijuana laws. The lawmakers also urged VA to consider making this directive the official policy of the Department upon the end of this public health emergency.

A supporter of federal legalization of marijuana, Senator Warren also reintroduced the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES Act) with Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in April 2019. Both senators also announced a bipartisan bill that would prohibit the VA from denying veterans VA-backed home loans based on their employment in their state's legal cannabis industry. Senator Warren has also led a series of letters in July 2015, December 2015, and June 2016 to federal agencies requesting they reduce barriers to marijuana research, including by rescheduling marijuana.