Cannabis remains illegal under federal law as a Schedule I drug, leaving states to craft their own marijuana-related laws in true patchwork fashion. By now, most states have enacted at least some form of medical marijuana law. State officials increasingly understand the benefits of medical marijuana for patients who have qualifying medical conditions. But acceptance does not necessarily create clarity in the law. What happens when an employee with a qualifying medical condition seeks reimbursement for medical marijuana through an employer’s workers’ compensation plan? As with any cannabis-related question, the answer depends on the state in which the claim is made.
For purposes of workers’ compensation claims, a key question is whether medical marijuana use is considered a reasonable and necessary medical treatment. Some states expressly permit such claims, others flatly deny them, and still others take a middle approach. In many states, this issue has resulted in extensive litigation. Minnesota has avoided the need for such litigation by being one of the few states that permit claims for medical cannabis under an employer’s workers’ compensation plan.
In July 2015, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry enacted new rules that redefine “illegal substance” to exclude a patient’s use of medical cannabis permitted by Minnesota law. In other words, since 2015, medical marijuana has been a reimbursable form of medical treatment for workers’ compensation claims within the state. In no small part, this is due to an increasing medical consensus that certain prior treatment protocols (i.e., long-term treatment plans involving opiate prescriptions) are no longer advocated for as strongly as they once were, particularly for post-injury intractable pain. In fact, in Minnesota, legislators have determined that long-term treatment with opioid analgesic medication is expressly not the preferred approach for the treatment of workers’ compensation injuries unless certain stringent requirements are met.
It is important to remember that just because an employee has a qualifying medical condition and is registered in Minnesota’s medical marijuana program does not mean he or she will automatically be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. As always, claims are reviewed on an individual basis, treatment must be both medically necessary and reasonable, and there may be other disqualifying reasons. But for employers based in Minnesota, the state has provided a pathway forward for workers’ compensation claims involving treatment by medical cannabis. As such, employers should process employee claims involving medical marijuana as they do all other workers’ compensation claims.