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Massachusetts Law Bars Workers’ Comp Claim for Medical Pot Cost

Oct. 27, 2020, 7:49 PM

A Massachusetts man is unable to recover $24,268 in costs for medical marijuana he uses to treat workplace injuries because state law legalizing its use expressly excludes such coverage, the Massachusetts top court ruled Tuesday.

The state legislature “carefully drafted” the 2012 version of the law at issue in Daniel Wright’s case against Central Mutual Insurance Company to navigate a clash with federal law, which still criminalizes marijuana use, Justice Scott L. Kafker said.

Massachusetts law provides that it doesn’t require covered individuals or entities to violate federal law and doesn’t immunize someone using medical marijuana from federal prosecution, the court said.

And, as “most relevant here,” state law expressly states that health insurance providers and government agencies can’t be forced to reimburse patients for the expense of medical marijuana, Kafker said.

The language in the Massachusetts law “is substantially similar” to that in 22 other states, he said.

Marijuana use is still illegal federally and, consequently, Massachusetts—and other states that legalized it for medical purposes—had to conduct a “high wire act” to avoid running afoul of or unwittingly expanding federal law, the court said.

The Massachusetts law was passed to shield medical marijuana patients and medical providers from local prosecution, Kafker said.

But “the size and scope of the legalization of medical marijuana would be substantially expanded” if workers’ compensation and other insurers were required to foot the bill. That would raises concerns about federal enforcement and preemption, he said.

Moreover, a medical marijuana user’s assumption of the risks of being prosecuted federally is voluntary but an insurer’s participation wouldn’t be, the court said.

And insurance companies typically operate interstate, increasing the risk of federal detection and prosecution.

Requiring insurers to reimburse medical marijuana costs could further heighten those federal concerns because it may lead to an increase in “usage and the amounts of money at stake,” Kafker said.

The court said its holding was consistent with its July 2017 ruling that a medical-marijuana-using worker could sue his employer for disability discrimination over his use away from work.

It’s also consistent with the fact that most states have approached the issue in a similar manner, Kafker said.

A contrary ruling also could undermine the workers’ compensation scheme in Massachusetts, he said.

Justices Ralph D. Gants (who participated in deliberations only), Barbara A. Lenk, Frank M. Gaziano, David A. Lowy, Kimberly S. Budd, and Elspeth B. Cypher joined the opinion.

Libbos Law represented Wright. Leonard Y. Nason in Bedford, Mass., and James E. Ramsey in Worcester represented the insurer.

The case is Daniel Wright’s Case, 2020 BL 414132, Mass., No. SJC-12873, 10/27/20.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com