This article is Part Four of our Medical Marijuana and the Workplace: Recent Decisions from New England Courts Provide Significant Protections to Medical Marijuana Patient Employees Five-Part Series. See Parts One, Two, and Three for reference.
As the qualified use of medical marijuana to treat illnesses becomes more common and courts become more willing to extend legal protections to medical marijuana patient/employees, workers’ compensation is likely to become another focus of litigation. One potential argument would be that if an employees’ healthcare provider certifies, recommends, or prescribes (depending on the character of the medical marijuana act at issue) the use of medical marijuana as part of a course of treatment, the treatment is reasonable and necessary, and employers and their respective workers’ compensation insurer are therefore responsible for providing it.
Few courts have addressed this issue, but those opinions that exist have tended to require employers to reimburse employees who have incurred workplace injuries and seek reimbursement for medical marijuana that is purchased to treat the underlying injury (as long as they are qualified patients and a workers’ compensation court determines that the treatment is reasonable and necessary). In one of the few cases on the subject, the New Mexico Court of Appeals held that marijuana may be a “reasonable and necessary” medical treatment for a workplace injury, and if a treatment is reasonable and necessary, the employer and its insurer are responsible for paying the bill. See Vialpando v. Ben’s Automotive Services, 2014-NMCA-084, 331 P.3d 975 (N.M. Ct. App.), cert. denied, 331 P.3d 924 (N.M. 2014); see also Lewis v. American Gen. Media, 355 P.3d 850, 856-58 (N.M. App. 2015) (rejecting challenge to reimbursement for medical marijuana under Workers’ Compensation Act based on federal preemption); cf. Maez v. Riley Indus., 347 P.3d 732, 735-37 (N.M. App. 2015) (finding sufficient evidence that medical marijuana was medically necessary).
In Vialpando, the claimant, George Vialpando, injured his back in a work-related accident in 2000 while employed by Ben’s Automotive Services (“Ben’s Automotive”), and was not able to find relief through traditional drugs and treatment. His doctor opined that Mr. Vialpando had “some of the most extremely high intensity, frequency and duration of pain, out of all of the thousands of patients I’ve treated within my seven years practicing medicine.” Thereafter, in 2013, Vialpando was certified by his healthcare providers to become a patient in the New Mexico medical marijuana program. The program allows a qualifying patient to purchase marijuana after having secured a certification from a New Mexico licensed health practitioner that the subject individual is suffering from a debilitating medical condition and that the potential health benefits of the medical use of marijuana would likely outweigh the health risks posed by its use.
Vialpando then applied for approval from the workers’ compensation court to have the medical marijuana paid for by his former employer. The Court approved his application, determined that the treatment was, in fact, reasonable and necessary, and ordered Ben’s Automotive
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