NM Court Rules For Workers Comp Payment to Medical Marijuana

Appeals Court in New Mexico Rules Medical Marijuana Should Be Paid By Workers Comp

medical marijuanaA New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled recently that an employer’s workers comp coverage should go to pay for an injured worker’s medical marijuana.

This is, so far, the first appellate court ruling in favor of medical marijuana treatment paid by an insurance company for a work place injury.

The injured worker, George Vialpando, was working at Ben’s Automotive Services in Santa Fe in 2000 when he seriously injured his back. His physician testified that Vialpando was unable to find satisfactory pain relief through conventional prescription drugs or rehabilitation treatments, and had “some of the most extremely high intensity, frequency and duration of pain, out of all of the thousands of patients I’ve treated within my seven years practicing medicine.” In 2013, his physicians certified him to participate in a medical marijuana program because of his debilitating work injury.

Because his injury was caused by his work, and because workers comp covers other prescription drugs, Vialpando applied for workers comp coverage of the medical marijuana treatments. The original workers comp judge approved the medical marijuana application, finding that the treatment was “reasonable and necessary” given Vialpando’s past history with other pain medications.

Ben’s Automotive, however, raised two arguments against paying Vialpando’s workers comp: first, that the Worker’s Compensation Act doesn’t authorize reimbursements for the cost of medical marijuana, and second, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level and therefore a federally-mandated program could not prescribe an illegal drug.

The appeals court, in its decision, found no conflict between federal and state laws regarding medical marijuana use. Vialpando fell clearly into the Compassionate Use Act, which allows for beneficial use of marijuana to alleviate chronic pain and other medical symptoms as long as the drug’s use is strictly regulated. The Department of Justice also stated that outside of eight specific enforcement areas, it defers to state and local authorities, allowing New Mexico’s workers comp insurers to cover medical marijuana.

Opponents of the decision believe that this will drastically raise the workers comp premiums in New Mexico, as more and more disabled employees apply for medical marijuana treatment.

States with Legal Medical Marijuana Use Struggle to Understand Workers Comp Impact

Although marijuana is still technically legal at the federal level, 20 states and Washington DC have passed laws allowing marijuana to be used for medical reasons (additionally, Washington State and Colorado allow recreational marijuana use). However, with marijuana dispensaries becoming more common, state regulators are now beginning to question whether medical marijuana should be covered under workers comp insurance.

Some states have taken this potential inundation into account. Vermont and Montana, which have both legalized medical marijuana, disallow workers comp coverage for the drug. New Mexico, on the other hand, requires a patient registry identification card, supervision and monitoring, and caregiver and practitioner licensing in the Workers’ Comp system, so medical marijuana could be covered if specifically prescribed.

However, medical marijuana could still cause accidents on the job, if an employee returns to work while intoxicated on the drug. “Just because you’re taking medical marijuana for medical use doesn’t means it’s safe to use on your job,” said Trey Gillespie, the senior workers’ compensation director for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

The Strom Law Firm Understands Worker’s Comp Legislation

The workers comp lawyers at The Strom Law Firm, LLC proudly seek justice on behalf of employees injured or killed on the job who work for private companies, as well as employees working for local county, city, and state government. We are licensed to practice throughout South Carolina, as well as Georgia and New York. If you are confused about worker’s comp laws, or have had your worker’s comp claim denied, contact us. We offer free consultations to discuss the facts of your case. 803.252.4800.