At the start of what turned out to be a raucous press conference on Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump announced that he’d picked an Obama administration official to lead his Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
If confirmed by the Senate, David Shulkin, currently the VA’s under secretary for health, would be the first non-veteran to lead the department.
He is also somewhat open to loosening restrictions on the medical use of marijuana by military veterans, if a rarely noticed letter he wrote last year is any indication.
“I wholeheartedly agree that VA should do all it can to foster open communication between Veterans and their VA providers, including discussion about participation in state marijuana programs,” he wrote last year in a letter to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and other members of Congress who had asked the VA to let its doctors fill out medical cannabis recommendation forms for veterans in states where it is legal. “I recognize that the disparity between Federal and state laws regarding the use of marijuana creates considerable uncertainty for patients, providers, and Federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel.”
Shulkin said that current federal law restricts the department’s ability to let doctors recommend medical marijuana, a claim that is disputed by advocates. But he did offer that he is “ready to assist with input from VA clinicians on any new Congressional proposals to align Federal marijuana laws with state laws.”
Shulkin also pledged to make it more clear to VA doctors that, even if they don’t currently have the ability to actually recommend medical marijuana under department policies, they are still free to discuss cannabis with their patients. “I will immediately clarify this with VA providers,” he wrote.
In recent years a number of Congressional proposals have been introduced to restrict the VA from punishing its doctors for recommending medical marijuana. Some of these measures have been approved in the House and in Senate, but none have yet been enacted into law.
Separately, one of the nation’s most powerful veterans advocacy organizations, the American Legion, recently joined the push for marijuana law reform. The group adopted a resolution last year calling for cannabis to be reclassified under federal law. More recently its leaders met with members of Trump’s transition team to discuss the topic, flagging it as one of the top three issues it wants the new Congress to address this year.
When Shulkin goes before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for a confirmation hearing it is likely he will face questions about increasing veterans’ access to medical cannabis. A number of marijuana law reform supporters are members of the panel, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Patty Murray (D-WA).
Photo Courtesy of Allie Beckett.