Who's calling the shots to allow VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana?

Medical Marijuana push.PNG

Its users say it's a life-saver. But at a VA Hospital, doctors can't talk about it.

In Nevada, 22 other states and the District of Columbia, medical marijuana is legal. Yet, because marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government, the VA, as a federal agency, can't talk about it.

"More and more states are implementing medical marijuana, so they need to get with the 21st century," Congresswoman Dina Titus told me at her Las Vegas office. The Democrat has joined a bi-partisan push asking VA Secretary Robert McDonald to change the agency's current policy, which expires at the end of the month. McDonald, could, in theory, put forward a new policy that does not erect barriers to medical marijuana.

Any change would only affect those states where medical marijuana is legal.

"We want our veterans to have the best medical care possible. We're not expanding the legality - just where it's legal," Titus says.

Wednesday morning, at Las Vegas ReLeaf Medical Marijuana Dispensary, Jeff Scott was doing some shopping. The Vietnam-era veteran was here looking for new "product" to help his chronic pain. A private doctor helped him get his medical marijuana card.

Asked about whether VA doctors should be able to recommend marijuana, Scott was all-in on the idea. "I think it's probably 50 years too late. They should have started long time ago," he told me. "Marijuana has many beneficial aspects to it," he said.

Las Vegas ReLeaf sees many customers like Scott, according to General Manager Nancy Zangari. "We have about ten to fifteen percent of our patient base that are veterans," she told me, standing in her sales area, which is a modern and secure room. On the wall was an illuminated price list, complete with pictures of different strains and products. In brightly-lit cases in front of her, were capped jars with marijuana, with holes which would allow customers to sample the aroma. Las Vegas ReLeaf was the first dispensary to open in the City of Las Vegas.

For veterans, Zangari says marijuana has had many benefits.

"I've even had patients who've reported, like, if they're missing limbs, it helps with the "phantom" pain," she says. "There are just so many ways that it helps create normalcy in their lives integrating back into society."

The US Department of Veterans Affairs did not have a specific comment on this latest call from Congress regarding medical marijuana. It did send News 3 a previous statement, which said, "VHA policy does not administratively prohibit Veterans who participate in State marijuana programs from also participating in VHA substance abuse programs, pain control programs, or other clinical programs where the use of marijuana may be considered inconsistent with treatment goals."

"Patients who participate in a non-VA marijuana program will not be denied access to care for VA clinical programs," the statement continued.

According to the VA, there are 158,000 veterans living in Clark, Lincoln and Nye counties. Of those, the VA provides health care for 57,000 men and women. A spokesperson says the agency does not track how many of those people may be using medical marijuana.

"At this point, I think we've suffered enough. I've suffered enough, I think," says Army Vet Cristina Alfonso. She spent three-plus years in the Army, receiving an injury that left her in pain and with post-traumatic stress. A medical marijuana user, she says the drug has been a godsend. "Those injuries and those mental illnesses just snowballed," she told me at a coffee shop near the UNLV campus.

"Deteriorating to the point of suicide," she continued,"I mean, if I need to take something that pushes all of that away and makes me a better person, why not?"

For Alfonso, medical marijuana is not just a drug, it's become a mission. She now works at a dispensary and helps other veterans.

As for Congress pushing the VA on pot?

"They should push, and push fast," Alfonso says.