Veterans are not in danger of losing VA benefits because of marijuana use, but current service members can't use marijuana. Veterans who use marijuana often ask if they are putting their disability benefits at risk. Find out the answer in this article.
VA Policy On Medical Marijuana and Veterans
Under current Department of Veterans Affairs policy, any substance listed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a Schedule 1 controlled substance is subject to the same prohibition at the VA level.
However, as more states consider legalizing medical marijuana, a growing number of veterans and interest groups have urged the government to reconsider the VA’s policy on medical cannabis.
In 2018, former Representatives Phil Roe (R) of Tennessee and Tim Walz (D) of Minnesota introduced House Resolution 5520, The VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act of 2018, which proposed to authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct medical marijuana research.
Specifically, the bill authorizes the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to conduct and support research on the efficacy and safety of certain forms of cannabis and cannabis delivery” for veterans enrolled in the VA health care system who have certain conditions, including chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
H.R. 5520 died in Congress, but another measure, known as the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE) passed the House in December 2020.
It has not yet had a Senate hearing or vote.
If passed, the MORE Act would remove cannabis from the Food and Drug Administration’s Schedule 1 Controlled Substances roster.
Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The MORE Act decriminalizes, regulates and taxes marijuana. It prohibits agencies from denying cannabis users public benefits, such as public housing. It also prohibits the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service from discriminating against citizenship applicants who use marijuana.
Official Department of Defense Policy on Marijuana
The Department of Defense strictly prohibits military members from using marijuana, cannabis and CBD products.
It also requires recruiters to use discretion when interviewing potential new recruits about possible drug use prior to military service. While recruiters do not have to reject prospective recruits for minor marijuana use, they may have to apply for a waiver before recruits with a drug history can enlist.
Military service branches apply a zero-tolerance policy to current service members who use drugs, including marijuana. A positive drug test for any illegal drug or illegally-used prescription drug is grounds for punishment and possibly discharge from the military.
Department of Veterans Affairs Policy on Medical Marijuana
VA policy on cannabis use is not connected with the official DOD policies.
However, while several states have decriminalized medical and recreational marijuana, the VA is a federal agency, so it must abide by federal law.
That means as long as marijuana is federally illegal, the VA can not recommend it or prescribe it as a treatment. VA pharmacies can’t fill a prescription for medical marijuana either.
However, the VA said it does not penalize veterans who use marijuana to relieve symptoms of PTSD or another service-connected.
Veterans can disclose marijuana, cannabis and CBD drug use to their medical provider without jeopardizing their health care and benefits, according to the VA.
Should the MORE Act–or something like it–pass into law, the VA’s policy on medical marijuana may change.
However, the change is unlikely to occur overnight if the passed legislation prescribed a phased introduction to medical cannabis for VA patients.
However, current military members who receive VA health care can not assume that marijuana legalization or decriminalization gives them permission to use cannabis products.
Military leadership has banned the use of legal substances like synthetic cannabinoids (“Spice,” or “K-2”), salvia divinorum and bath salts before. So, DOD could ban marijuana use, even if it was federally legal.
Veterans Will Not Lose VA Benefits for Discussing Medical Marijuana With VA Care Providers
The VA official site makes it clear that veterans who use cannabis are not in danger of losing VA benefits:
“Veteran participation in state marijuana programs does not affect eligibility for VA care and services. VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with Veterans as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary.”
While currently military members – including National Guardsmen and reservists – remain subject to DOD policy, it is safe for retired or separated military veterans to discuss marijuana use with VA staff.
VA caregivers need as much information as possible to make decisions about a veteran’s continued health care. Patient lifestyle choices are an important consideration in many health care decisions, including medication regimens. Many prescription drugs can interact negatively with alcohol, cannabis or other substances.
Doctors who know about a veteran’s marijuana use may advise different treatment options to avoid drug interactions.
Specific VA Policy Regarding the Discussion of Medical Marijuana Use With Patients
The VA official site has a list of rules, information and reassurances for veterans concerned about being forthright about their medical pot use with a VA caregiver. Specifically:
- The VA will not deny veterans their VA benefits because of marijuana use.
- The VA encourages veterans to discuss marijuana use with their VA providers.
- VA health care providers will record marijuana use in the veteran’s VA medical record, to have the information available in treatment planning. The information is part of the veteran’s confidential medical record, protected under patient privacy and confidentiality laws and regulations.
- VA clinicians may not recommend medical marijuana.
- VA clinicians may not prescribe products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) or any other cannabinoids.
- VA clinicians may not complete paperwork or forms for veteran patients to participate in state-approved marijuana programs.
VA Medical Marijuana Policies for State-Level MMJ Card/Medical Cannabis Card Approval
In states where medical marijuana is approved, patients must go through some kind of screening process to legally buy pot from a state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary.
In Illinois, for example, applicants must be screened for any one of a list of symptoms, including certain types of chronic pain, PTSD and debilitating conditions such as fibromyalgia.
Illinois requires the applicant to have a physician’s approval for marijuana, and many veterans would naturally turn to their VA caregivers for this certification. However, VA policy does not permit VA doctors or care providers to help with state-required paperwork for medical cannabis (MMJ) cards or any other part of the process.
VA patients must seek clinician certification at non-VA facilities instead.
VA Policy on Medical Marijuana Prescriptions
Many states do not require a prescription for medical cannabis. Patients who use legal medical pot receive cards “authorizing” them to possess cannabis instead.
In any case, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not permit VA clinics or staff to prescribe or fill prescriptions for medical marijuana.
The VA will not pay for such prescriptions, regardless of the source. VA rules also forbid marijuana possession and use while on VA property.
VA Employment Policies for Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana
The Department of Veterans Affairs, like all federal agencies, observes the Food and Drug Administration’s prohibition on marijuana.
Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, so veterans who use medical marijuana are ineligible for VA employment. Failing a drug test while working at the VA could also endanger your job, as abstaining from controlled substances is a condition of federal employment.
This may be true of both marijuana and marijuana derivatives such as cannabidiol, which is not illegal but may cause a positive result for marijuana on a drug test.
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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.
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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.
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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.