Recently, a judge in New Jersey ordered a workers’ compensation insurance company to cover the cost of an injured worker’s medical marijuana. The case marks a potentially precedent-setting opinion. The 39-year-old man in question suffers from lingering pain in his left hand after a work injury he suffered while using a saw nine years ago. His neurologist reports marijuana treatment was appropriate because it offers the chance to lower his prescription opiate use, which has substantial side effects.
Plaintiff sought reimbursement for medical marijuana he purchased at a local dispensary over the course of several months after being approved and enrolled for the state’s medical marijuana program. The judge’s ruling allows him to be covered for treatment in the future. It is believed this is the first ruling in that state to address whether a workers’ compensation insurer should be compelled to pay for medical marijuana, with the court finding the drug was both necessary and reasonable in this case.
Here in North Carolina and South Carolina, medical marijuana is not an option extended to workers – or anyone else – yet. North Carolina is one of 21 states that has decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug, but HB 78, a bill introduced in 2015 that would have introduced comprehensive medical marijuana legislation for serious conditions and injuries, died in the house judiciary committee. However, a new bill is likely to be introduced this legislative season. In South Carolina last month, on the first day of the legislative season, state lawmakers introduced a comprehensive medical marijuana bill that would allow those seriously ill or injured to access medical marijuana from a state-regulated dispensary.
In addition to New Jersey, New Mexico has three times since 2014 ruled that medical marijuana was both reasonable and necessary for injured workers and should be covered under workers’ compensation laws.
If and when medical marijuana legislation is passed in the Carolinas, the question of workers’ compensation coverage will inevitably be raised at some point. Our dedicated work injury attorneys will always fight on behalf of our clients to obtain compensation for any treatment and medication deemed both necessary and reasonable following an on-the-job injury or illness. With a growing number of states approving both medicinal and recreational marijuana, it’s likely we’ll see such cases crop up here before long.
The complicating factor is that despite state laws legalizing the drug, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which means it is illegal at the federal level. With these kinds of contradictory directives at the state and federal levels, many workers’ compensation payers – even those in states where the drug is lawful – will deny coverage. At this point, most argue they are within their legal rights to do so because medical marijuana isn’t included in any workers’ compensation treatment guidelines, such as those in the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine or the Official Disability Guidelines. That means the future of medical marijuana as it pertains to workers’ compensation remains in limbo.
Although proponents argue the drug is an effective alternative for management of pain, there are some employers who site workplace risks as a result of impaired balance, coordination, alertness, reaction and overall cognition. However, the same could likely be said about other legal substances we use to treat pain. The problem is there has been far less study on the effects and risks of marijuana, given its federal classification.
Contact the Carolina workers’ compensation lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Judge: Insurance company must pay for medical marijuana for injured N.J. worker, Jan. 6, 2017, By Jan Hefler, The Philadelphia Inquirer
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Report: Construction Workers at High Risk of Sprains and Strains, Jan. 27, 2017, Charlotte Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog