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The Debate Continues: Medical Marijuana in Workers’ Compensation

Posted by Kevin Glennon on January 30, 2017 at 3:29 PM


On this week’s episode, Kevin Glennon discusses medical marijuana and how its legislation varies from state to state. Kevin conducts educational programs for claims executives, case managers, claims handlers and other administration and management personnel.

Status of the use of Medical Marijuana in Workers’ Compensation

As a result of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level. However, 25 states have legalized medical marijuana on a state level prior to the previous election. Nine more states have voted in the election to legalize marijuana, five for recreational purposes and four for medicinal use:

Recreationally: Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada (all voted in favor, except Arizona)

Medical use: Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota. All were passed but the new law and its restrictions resulted in many workers’ compensation carriers denying coverage of medical marijuana in Montana.

There is currently no framework established by the Official Disability Guidelines or American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine for the use of medical marijuana in regards to an industrial accident, related injury or illness for management teams to devise their claims or procedures.

Properties in the cannabis plant, known as CBD properties, are utilized for chronic pain and inflammation. According to the Institute of Medicine, injury treatment and a of loss productivity in workplaces throughout the US have resulted in a cost of over 635 billion dollars.

Patients can develop a tolerance after prolonged use of traditional prescribed medicines that help reduce chronic pain and inflammation. Medical marijuana could be prescribed as an alternative in an effort to dull the chronic pain a worker may be experiencing after the effects of traditional medicine are no longer working.

Will Medical Marijuana Be Re-classified at a Federal Level?

There are two bills currently pending in Congress that, if approved, would re-classify marijuana:

The CARERS Act – The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act aims to re-classify marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule II substance, thereby being recognized as a substance with medicinal purposes.

HR1013 – This bill would regulate marijuana in a way similar to the Alcohol Act.

States That Use Medical Marijuana in Worker’s Compensation

New Mexico – In three instances, the court of appeals has ruled that medical marijuana is reasonable and necessary for injured workers and should be covered under workers’ comp.  In each case, it was approved only after other medications and therapies had failed to relieve the severe pain. Also, the workers’ compensation payor was to reimburse the injured employees for the medical marijuana instead of paying for it directly since it remains illegal on the federal level.

Louisiana – An employee’s prescription was a necessary medical expense and the employer’s carrier reimbursed the injured worker.

Minnesota – Added intractable pain as a condition that could be treated with medical marijuana. This may serve as a precedent for claimants’ attorneys to file claims for injured workers to use medical marijuana in this state.  

There is no workers’ comp statute in any state that has actually adopted medical marijuana as an accepted means of treatment for a work related accident, injury or illness.

Conflicts and Complications (State vs Federal)

With regards to marijuana use in the workplace, the federal law has been upheld even in places like Colorado, where marijuana is legal recreationally and medicinally, due to the drug free work place law.

Additional workplace risks are still prevalent as marijuana effects each individual differently and is dependent on the frequency of use and the amount that is used.  Marijuana can impair cognition, balance and delay reaction times as a result of the THC levels in the marijuana that individuals are using. THC levels in medicinal marijuana have been dulled down to a lower percentage.

Moving forward, companies will have to deal with workers individually depending on the type of marijuana that is being used.