July 8, 2018

Support for Marijuana Continues to Grow Across the Nation

In late June, voters passed Oklahoma State Question No. 788, legalizing the licensed use, sale, and growth of marijuana for medicinal purposes. A few days later, Illinois sent Senate Bill 0336 to Governor Bruce Rauner, potentially allowing patients to take opioid prescriptions to medical marijuana dispensaries to receive marijuana as an alternative. Then in early July, Vermont House Bill 511, which passed in January, took effect on July 1st, legalizing recreational marijuana across the state.

Years ago, legislative action surrounding marijuana, both medical and recreational, was slow and arduous, but it appears those early years were fundamental in teaching lawmakers how to navigate this new landscape. While the clinical effects of marijuana are still not fully understood, public opinion in favor of marijuana continues to rise, as evidenced by an influx of recent action.

Louisiana House Bill 579 was signed into law at the beginning of June and will take effect August 1st, adding more qualifying conditions to the state’s medical marijuana program, including glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Parkinson’s Disease, muscle spasms, and intractable pain.

New York passed emergency regulations that allow patients to substitute medical marijuana for any conditions for which an opioid can be prescribed. Governor Andrew Cuomo also spoke about the potential benefits of marijuana legalization, shortly after announcing plans to support the development of medical marijuana business in his state, directing the state Department of Financial Services to provide guidance to support banking services on these businesses that operate illegally under federal law.

And speaking of the conflicting issues of state versus federal marijuana policies, the U.S. Senate introduced the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, which aims to protect state marijuana legislation across the country, preventing federal rules from overriding them. A companion House bill shortly followed, and President Trump went on record saying he will likely support the bill if it reaches his office.

In late June the FDA approved Epidiolex (cannabidiol), a new seizure drug derived from marijuana, and the FDA Commissioner voiced support for more controlled clinical trials of marijuana-derived products, promising to work closely with product developers. However, FDA approval is not enough for this medication to be used in the U.S. As long as marijuana remains classified by the DEA as a Schedule I drug, the manufacturer will be unable to market or distribute Epidiolex to pharmacies for dispensing to patients.

It is undoubtable that we will likely see even more marijuana developments as time goes on, requiring healthcare stakeholders, including those in workers’ compensation, to seriously study marijuana and understand how to navigate it as the public continues to demand the right to use it, especially if efforts from the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee to tackle barriers to marijuana research are successful.

How workers’ compensation insurers and employers respond to this issue continues to evolve. The legal arguments presented in courtrooms and the final rulings from judges can vary so much that it is difficult to predict which party will prevail. Recently, Maine’s Supreme Court decided in Gaetan H. Bourgoin v. Twin Rivers Paper Company, LLC, et al that insurers are not required to reimburse for medical marijuana. Yet a few weeks later, a New Jersey judge ruled in favor of the injured worker, ordering the carrier to reimburse for medical marijuana. New Hampshire courts are currently considering litigation regarding medical marijuana reimbursement in the case of Andrew Panaggio v the New Hampshire Compensation Appeals Board.

Regardless of how one interprets these decisions, the debate on this topic will continue to evolve as insurers, employers, injured workers and healthcare providers consider the risks and potential benefits of medical marijuana in workers’ compensation claims.

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