The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts issued a notable ruling yesterday in Daniel Wright’s Case, No. SJC-12873 (Oct. 27 2020) (available here). The full introduction of the opinion from the unanimous court nicely highlights the issue and its resolution:
In the instant case we are asked to determine whether an insurance company may be ordered to reimburse an employee for medical marijuana expenses pursuant to a general provision of the Massachusetts workers’ compensation scheme that requires reimbursement of necessary and reasonable medical expenses. The claimant, Daniel Wright, sought compensation for $24,267.86 of medical marijuana expenses to treat chronic pain stemming from two work-related injuries he sustained in 2010 and 2012. His claim was denied by an administrative judge, and the denial was affirmed on appeal by the reviewing board of the Department of Industrial Accidents (department). The reviewing board concluded that marijuana’s status as a federally illicit substance preempted any State level authority to order a workers’ compensation insurer to pay for Wright’s medical marijuana expenses. We likewise conclude that the workers’ compensation insurer cannot be required to pay for medical marijuana expenses, but do so based on the medical marijuana act itself.
We recognize that the current legal landscape of medical marijuana law may, at best, be described as a hazy thicket. Marijuana is illegal at the Federal level and has been deemed under Federal law to have no medicinal purposes, but Massachusetts, as well as the majority of States, have legalized medical marijuana and created regulatory schemes for its administration and usage. Complicating and confusing matters further, Congress has placed budgetary restrictions on the ability of the United States Department of Justice to prosecute individuals for marijuana usage in compliance with a State medical marijuana scheme, and the Department of Justice has issued, revised, and revoked memoranda explaining its marijuana enforcement practices and priorities, leaving in place no clear guidance.
The Commonwealth’s original medical marijuana act, St. 2012, c. 369 (act or medical marijuana act), was carefully drafted by its sponsors to take into account this most difficult regulatory environment, with provisions specifically designed to avoid possible conflicts with the Federal government. One such provision of the law expressly states that “[n]othing in this law requires any health insurance provider, or any government agency or authority, to reimburse any person for the expenses of the medical use of marijuana.” St. 2012, c. 369, § 7 (B). See G. L. c. 94I, § 6 (i). This provision recognizes that when medical marijuana patients seek to recover the costs of such use from third parties, including insurance companies engaged in interstate commerce, the regulatory environment becomes even more problematic. Under the plain language of this provision, those insurers are not required to reimburse medical marijuana expenses for a substance that remains illegal under Federal law.
We conclude that this specific language, and the Federal concerns it seeks to address and avoid, is controlling and not overridden by the general language in the workers’ compensation laws requiring workers’ compensation insurers to reimburse for reasonable medical expenses. A contrary reading of this specific language, which states that health insurers and government agencies and authorities are not required to reimburse medical marijuana expenses, would have been completely misleading to those who voted on it. It is one thing for a State statute to authorize those who want to use medical marijuana, or provide a patient with a written certification for medical marijuana, to do so and assume the potential risk of Federal prosecution; it is quite another for it to require unwilling third parties to pay for such use and risk such prosecution. The drafters of the medical marijuana law recognized and respected this distinction