Medical Marijuana Covered Under Workers’ Compensation

By:  Ryan D. Lang, Esq.

 

A New Jersey Administrative Law Judge recently held that an employer’s workers’ compensation carrier was required to pay for an injured worker’s medical marijuana.   That worker, Andrew Watson, a 39-year-old man from Manahawkin, New Jersey, injured his hand while using a power saw in 2008 at an 84 Lumber outlet.  As a result of the accident, Mr. Watson suffered lingering neuropathic pain in his hand, which he treated using opioids.   In 2014, Andrew Watson enrolled in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program.  Mr. Watson’s medical marijuana treatment had been helping to relieve his pain, and was helping him to avoid dangerous opioid use, but he could not afford to pay for the marijuana necessary for his treatment.  The cost of marijuana was approximately $475 an ounce, and Mr. Watson’s employer’s workers’ compensation carrier refused to pay for the treatment, and as such, he stopped using it.  Mr. Watson then sought legal action to be reimbursed for his prescription costs, as well as to gain insurance coverage for future prescriptions as part of his enrollment in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program.

The attorney for the employer’s workers’ compensation carrier argued that Mr. Watson’s ailment did not qualify for medical marijuana under the state program and that the doctor who prescribed the marijuana for Mr. Watson was not his treating physician. 

New Jersey Administrative Law Judge Ingrid L. French found that Watson’s ailment, that is, intractable neuropathic pain, is a qualifying condition under the state program and that the prescribing doctor was a partner of Mr. Watson’s treating physician, and was therefore eligible to assess his condition.  Judge French’s decision stated that she found Mr. Watson to be a credible witness, finding that “[h]e testified that the effects of the marijuana, in many ways, is not as debilitating as the effects of Percocet…. Ultimately, the petitioner was able to reduce his use of oral narcotic medication… The court found the petitioner’s approach to his pain management needs has been cautious, mature, and overall, he is exceptionally conscientious in managing his pain.” 
        
Mr. Watson also had an expert witness, a psychiatrist, Edward H. Tobe, who testified about the risks associated with taking opioids, as well as the benefits cannabis medicine has provided, and will continue to provide, to Mr. Watson.  He testified that marijuana helped reduce Mr. Watson’s use of opioids and would likely help him “achieve better function” in his hand. 
        
Ultimately, Judge French held that “the petitioner’s ‘trial’ use of medicinal marijuana has been successful.  While the court is sensitive to the controversy surrounding the medical use of marijuana, whether or not it should be prescribed for a patient in a state where it is legal to prescribe is a medical decision that is within the boundaries of the law in the state.”  Judge French ruled in favor of Mr. Watson, finding that his use of medical marijuana was “reasonable and necessary.” 
        
While this decision was not appealed, and therefore does not set a precedent in the State of New Jersey, it is persuasive.  Accordingly, workers’ compensation carriers in New Jersey, and in other states where medical marijuana has been legalized, have been put on notice that courts have and likely will continue to rule that medical marijuana can be covered under insurance programs.