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By Anthony Cave October 26, 2016

Are VA doctors barred from recommending medical marijuana to veterans?

The effort to legalize recreational marijuana in Arizona has seen millions of dollars in contributions opposing the initiative -- and political advertisements on both sides of the issue.

A recent ad from the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, a pro-pot group, tells the story of a post-9/11 veteran, Bruce Laird, who was prescribed multiple drugs before he turned to medical marijuana to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder.

"VA doctors are prohibited from recommending medical marijuana," the Oct. 14 ad’s on-screen text reads, before urging a "yes" vote on recreational marijuana to help veterans.

As we’ve noted previously, voters approved medical marijuana in November 2010. The first dispensary opened in December 2012.

We wondered if the ad’s claim about U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doctors checked out, especially given the continued delays for health care at the Phoenix VA Health Care System.

Cannabis concessions

The prohibition is outlined in the VA’s 2011 directive on medical marijuana.

"It is VHA policy to prohibit VA providers from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a veteran’s participation in a state marijuana program."  

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, marijuana is a Schedule I drug, which means it cannot be used for medical purposes and has high potential for abuse.

The DEA has a five-schedule drug scale -- the higher the number, the less dangerous. However, 25 states have already legalized medical marijuana.  

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Dr. Andrew Saxon of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle said federal health care systems have to obey federal laws. Marijuana is still illegal federally.

However, a veteran could still receive VA health care -- as the 2011 directive notes -- and seek medical marijuana elsewhere.

"A military veteran who is eligible for VA health care cannot be refused those services if he/she is using medical marijuana authorized by a non-VA health care provider," Saxon said.

Legislation on amending the VA’s policy has come up short.

Earlier this year, an amendment to the VA’s budget bill would have allowed VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states where it’s legal.

However, the amendment was removed from the spending bill, which eventually passed.

Our ruling

The ad claimed, "VA doctors are prohibited from recommending medical marijuana."

That’s on the mark. Veterans can still seek medical marijuana on their own -- where it’s legal -- and VA health care.

We rate the ad’s claim True.

Our Sources

ABC15, "More than $2.2 million in spending against recreational marijuana, Proposition 205, in October," Oct. 18, 2016

ABC15, "Report: Continued delays for veterans at Phoenix VA system," Oct. 4, 2016

Political TV Ad Archive, "Save Our Vets," Oct. 14, 2016

PolitiFact, "Barack Obama says it’s up to Congress to change how feds classify marijuana," Feb. 4, 2014

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, "Access to clinical programs for veterans participating in state-approved marijuana programs," Jan. 31, 2011

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, "Drug Scheduling," accessed Oct. 24, 2016

The New York Times, "Election may be a turning point for legal marijuana," Oct. 24, 2016

U.S. News and World Report, "Veteran pot amendment that passed House and Senate won’t reach Obama’s desk," Sept. 29, 2016

Interview with VA Puget Sound Health Care System Dr. Andrew Saxon, Oct. 21, 24, 2016

Interview with The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol spokesman Barrett Marson, Oct. 21, 2016

Interview with Rice University drug policy fellow Katharine Neill, Oct. 24, 2016

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Are VA doctors barred from recommending medical marijuana to veterans?

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