Contributed by The Babcock Law Firm
Until recently, the terms “workers’ compensation” and “marijuana” probably weren’t used in the same sentence unless you were discussing the easiest way to get a workers’ compensation claim denied.
Fast-forward a few years to the legalization of medical marijuana in a steadily increasing number of states.
Current numbers show that medical marijuana is legal in 33 U.S. states and in Washington, D.C. Recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states and D.C. — including in Colorado.
With marijuana becoming increasingly legalized nationwide, it’s also becoming more of an issue in matters of workers’ compensation. For this reason, lawmakers and workers’ compensation lawyers can no longer ignore the issue.
Why has marijuana become a big issue for workers’ compensation?
In order to understand the full scope of the issue, it’s worth exploring where medical research surrounding cannabis and marijuana currently stands.
Many experts believe that the rise in medical marijuana is connected, in part, to the national effort to combat the opioid crisis. Advocates of medical marijuana argue that cannabis, still illegal under federal law, is an effective pain treatment option that is cheaper and less addictive than opioids.
Many doctors and others in the healthcare community are on board with using medical marijuana to help put an end to the opioid epidemic and treat a variety of medical conditions. As a result, in states where it’s legalized, many employees injured on the job come away from a doctor’s appointment with a prescription for medical marijuana.
But because marijuana operates in a legal gray area due to it still being federally illegal, many workers’ compensation insurance companies are hesitant to cover it or have an outright policy of denying it.
Herein lies the problem:
Only a handful of states — including Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico — officially require insurers to pay workers’ comp claims involving medical marijuana.
What that means is that workers in every other state — including states where medical (and even recreational) marijuana is legalized — are stuck in “limbo” when it comes to medically-approved cannabis treatment for their work-related injuries.
That’s a lot of states — and a lot of workers.
How medical marijuana is changing the landscape of workers’ compensation
As some insurers scramble to review and make decisions about changing their policies regarding medical marijuana, a few states have already done so and are ruling in favor of medical marijuana.
In 2015, a New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that an insurer and employer had to reimburse an employee for the cost of their medical marijuana, used to relieve pain associated with a workplace injury.
Of course, not all workers’ compensation cases are so cut-and-dry.
For example: Can substances that are legal statewide but not federally be used on the job?
A painter in Sacramento fell off a ladder. His reason? He reported that he was “pretty high” due to the medical marijuana that he uses to control his Tourette’s syndrome, which the employer already knew about. Is the employer’s insurance company liable for workers’ compensation benefits?
I think it’s high time (no pun intended) for employers, insurance companies and workers’ compensation attorneys to think about how workplace injuries involving medical marijuana will be handled, and how to accommodate employees who have been prescribed medical marijuana for pain management.