How Medical Marijuana Might Affect Workers’ Compensation Policies

Workers’ compensation insurance providers may have to start facing up to the possibility that they will eventually have to pay for medical marijuana pain treatments for their injured workers. Because laws governing medical marijuana vary from state to state, interpreting how medical marijuana affects workers’ compensation policies has become very confusing.

Insurance Carrier Concerns

The insurance carriers have numerous concerns about those treatments, including the effects the drug will have on the injured workers as well as the unregulated nature of the business.  Also chief among their concerns is the consistency of the contents of the drug along with the lack of standardization about dosages.  Because there is generally no unit price for the drug, workers’ compensation insurance carriers struggle to decide what they should and should not be paying for.  Additionally, because a pharmacist does not dispense marijuana, there can be no counseling on the interaction of marijuana with other drugs the injured worker may be taking.

Effects of Marijuana on Workers

Concerning the effects of marijuana on injured workers, some studies have indicated that THC can cause psychosis in individuals prone to anxiety.  However, on the flip side is that the drug is projected to help with unrelenting pain issues for millions of injured workers.  So, paying for medical marijuana may actually decrease a worker’s medical expenses in certain instances.

History and Use

Since 1970, marijuana has been classified as a Schedule 1 drug, making it illegal.  Because of this, it has been difficult for researchers to gain access to the drug to determine its effectiveness.  Medical marijuana contains active ingredients from the cannabis plant that help with pain relief, nausea control, appetite stimulation, and decreasing ocular pressure.


Currently, many insurance carriers that are paying for medical marijuana are doing so by reimbursing the injured worker for the purchase rather than covering it directly.  This is done as an attempt to insulate the insurance company from being prosecuted by the federal government.  Because of marijuana’s Schedule 1 classification, it is not included in the National Drug Code, so governmental insurance providers like Medicare and Medicaid, won’t pay for it without proper coding and regulation.

Opioid Epidemic

Complicating the matter still further is the current opioid epidemic.  New Jersey reports that many workers’ comp insurance carriers are reimbursing the injured worker for the cost of medical marijuana rather than paying for opioid drugs.  Many argue that medical marijuana is cheaper and less addictive than opioids.  Medical marijuana, which is considered to be different than recreational marijuana, does not include the chemical THC which causes the “high.”

Who Has Legalized?

Currently, twenty-nine states, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal use.  Two states, Washington and Colorado, have legalized marijuana for recreational use. As many as 15 additional states are expected to consider legalizing marijuana in the coming year.  Read our article about Virginia medical marijuana policies here.

To date, at least 5 states — Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New Mexico — have ruled that medical marijuana treatment requires insurance company reimbursement.  Recently, a New Mexico court ruled that medical marijuana treatment was reasonable and necessary medical care for an employee with a back injury and 99% permanent partial disability.  Also, in the state of Delaware, Kalix v. Giles & Ransom (IAB #12880555) was the first case in Delaware to address whether an employer should be required to pay for an employee’s medical marijuana treatment for chronic pain.  The Delaware court awarded the employee $22,000.00 in reimbursement of dispensary costs.  Lastly, a recent Oklahoma ruling has permitted an injured worker to receive workers’ compensation benefits after a positive drug test.  The Court ruled that “the critical focus is not whether an intoxicating substance was present in the workers’ system, but rather whether there was a causal connection between the accident and a state of intoxication.”

On the other hand, however, Michigan has passed legislation stating that workers’ compensation carriers are not required to reimburse workers for charges related to medical marijuana treatment.  Currently, no states allow employees to use marijuana in the workplace or require employers to allow its use on the job.

Still other issues arise out of the topic including what happens when a worker is injured due to intoxication from marijuana.  In Wisconsin, if the use of a controlled substance such a marijuana is the primary cause of the employee’s injury, then the workers’ comp benefits can be reduced by 15%.

Drug-Free Workplace?

Some workers’ compensation insurance carriers have been giving premium credits to employers who implement drug-free workplace policies.  With the goal to reduce the number of employees who show up at work impaired, the hope is that the number of workplace injuries will decrease as a result.

But, will drug-free workplace policies stand up in states where marijuana is legal?  In Michigan, medical marijuana is legal but an employee can still be fired if he/she fails a drug test.  Similarly, in Colorado, Courts have ruled that an employer can have a drug-free workplace policy and still fire the employee for testing positive for marijuana, even though the drug is legal.  Given our current trend toward more and more states legalizing medical (and even recreational) marijuana, it seems that some guidance may be needed to reconcile marijuana usage with a drug-free workplace.

Ritchie Law Firm is a personal injury law firm devoted to helping individuals who have suffered serious injuries as a result of a job injury. Ritchie Law Firm serves injured workers in all of Virginia, while helping clients in cities and surrounding areas of Harrisonburg, Charlottesville, Staunton, and Winchester.  Check out case studies from some of the cases we’ve handled by clicking here.

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