Their Drug Policies Make No Sense!
I recently stumbled across a fascinating article on the confusing and strange world of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ policy on painkillers and illegal drugs. It told the story of Bill Williams, a Vietnam War veteran living in Texas, and his fight to continue receiving hydrocodone (Vicodin) for chronic pain.
Without going into detail here – find that below – I found Williams’ story incredibly interesting. It raised a number of questions over how the VA treats pain and how they, a federal agency, deal with medical marijuana.
Think about it – all forms of marijuana, medical and recreational, are illegal at a federal level. How can a federal agency prescribe, provide, regulate, and simply deal with a drug that’s illegal nationally but legal in certain states?
The answer is that a federal agency can’t deal with it. Williams’ story makes this abundantly clear. Read on to learn what he went through and where the VA stands on medical marijuana.
Chronic Pain, Narcotic Pills & Medical Marijuana
Bill William’s story starts, like many veterans, in Vietnam.
Williams served on a submarine and developed PTSD as a result of his service. The VA regularly prescribed him Valium and other benzo-like drugs to treat his PTSD for the past thirty years. They also prescribed him Vicodin for chronic pain since late 2013.
Williams also smoked marijuana to help combat both his PTSD and chronic pain. While the VA was at first sympathetic, and even urged him to continue smoking pot if it helped, that’s no longer the case.
In fact, the VA recently implemented a number of “no-tolerance” policies surrounding the prescription of opioid painkillers. These are a result of the DEA’s crackdown on hydrocodone in late 2014 (moving it from a Schedule III to a Schedule II narcotic).
These policies culminated in Williams losing his hydrocodone prescription in April after failing a drug test for marijuana.
According to the Military.com article, Williams hadn’t smoked pot in months. Rather, his friends’ secondhand smoke caused him to fail the test. Regardless of whether he inhaled or not, Williams did admit to failing previous drug tests for marijuana.
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He doesn’t see why the Texas VA is punishing him for smoking marijuana when it’s legal in other states. This point gets to the heart of the matter – how the VA dictates its medical marijuana policy.
According to Williams’ doctor, the Texas VA doesn’t allow any leeway when it comes to marijuana and opioids. Still, when other states’ VAs allow for civilian based medical marijuana prescription…things start to fall into legal gray area.
In fact, according to the article,
“But in states such as Texas, where marijuana isn’t legal, the VA’s policy is less clear. Asked specifically about marijuana use by Texas patients, VA officials couldn’t provide clarification” (Military.com).
So where does the VA stand on medical marijuana? What’s its position on vets like Bill Williams who aren’t smoking pot to get high, but rather using it as a vital and necessary form of medicine?
The VA’s Position on Medical Marijuana
For years the Department of Veterans Affairs’ doctors, nurses, and medical professionals were unable to even officially talk about medical marijuana with their patients.
This was, and still largely is, due to the Controlled Substances Act. That’s the piece of law that makes marijuana illegal on a federal level. It also prevents any federal government employee from recommending a substance deemed to be illegal.
Advocacy groups, like Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access, argue this line of thought is outdated and serves no one – not policy makers, not doctors, and certainly not veterans.
Things started to change this past May though. The Senate advanced a VA funding bill – the FY16 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriation bill – that includes a provision enabling VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana.
There are a few caveats though. First, VA doctors would only be able to recommend medical marijuana. They wouldn’t be able to prescribe or dispense it, as marijuana is still illegal at a federal level.
Second, the bill wasn’t passed into law. Rather, the amendment regarding VA doctors and marijuana was voted on and officially added to the bill. It still has to be passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives – where a slightly different version of the bill is making its way through committee.
Finally, both the Senate and the House bill need to be the same to be passed into law.
Still, this is a major step forward in addressing the discrepancy between national and state-level marijuana law. It’s also a major step forward in regulating how the VA views medical marijuana.
Think about it like this – Bill Williams may be able to get the pain relief he needs if the VA takes a unified stance on how to treat medical marijuana.
It doesn’t mean things are going to change overnight and it doesn’t mean that Williams will immediately get his painkiller prescription back. It does mean that lawmakers, federal agencies, state departments, and government-employed doctors will be on the same page.
That’s something we can all hope for.