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Court: Medical marijuana qualifies for workers’ comp benefits

Many people use marijuana to help ease pain. However, even though medical professionals have argued that it’s less addictive and dangerous than some prescription pain killers, it’s still illegal under federal law. It’s categorized as a Schedule 1 drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

That was the argument one man’s employer made when it denied his worker’s compensation claim for the cost of his medical marijuana. He was injured back in 2001 when a load of concrete fell on top of him. He had nerve damage and underwent surgery but still suffered pain and was not able to return to his job. He became addicted to several pain killers, including Valium and OxyContin. His doctor suggested using marijuana instead, and he says it helped him get off those prescription medications. He says he spends a little over $600 a month on the drug.

However, the company he worked for when he was injured, M&K Construction in New Jersey, refused to pay him workers’ compensation for it. In 2018, a judge ordered the company to reimburse him. It appealed the case.

Now, in a ruling that could have implications beyond that state — including in two cases here in Pennsylvania — a New Jersey appeals court ruled in the man’s favor. The court stated that “M&K is not purchasing or distributing the medical marijuana on behalf of [the man]; it is only reimbursing him for his legal use of the substance.” Medical marijuana is legal in New Jersey, as it is in Pennsylvania and most other states.

One attorney who works in cannabis law says of the decision, “This is huge…It sets a precedent for other state’s workers’ comp programs and national private health insurers.” A workers’ comp attorney who is involved with those two pending Pennsylvania cases says, “The court took issue with whether federal law trumps state law and found if there’s not federal preemption, state law applies.”

The Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Medical Marijuana and Hemp Law Committee’s co-chair noted that the court “recogniz[es] the consequences of legalizing marijuana.”

People often find that so-called “alternative medicine” is just as effective — if not more so — than traditional treatments and drugs and often safer and less expensive. However, insurance companies and workers’ comp boards can be slow to recognize that. If you’re having difficulty getting workers’ comp benefits, it may be wise to seek legal advice.

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