Wednesday, May 21, 2014
On Monday, a New Mexico appeals court upheld an order requiring an employer (and its insurance company) to pay for an employee's medical marijuana. The decision involves a worker who was seriously injured on the job. The employer did not dispute the employee's eligiblity for worker's compensation generally, but objected to coverage of medical marijuana. In what, to my knowledge, is a first, the court held that medical marijuana is covered under the New Mexico Workers' Compensation Act.
Here's an overview of the case, from the opinion's introduction (PDF):
We consider in this appeal whether, under the Workers' Compensation Act (theAct), NMSA 1978, §§ 52-1-1 to -70 (1929, as amended through 2013), an employer and insurer must reimburse an injured worker for medical marijuana used pursuant to the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act (Compassionate Use Act), NMSA 1978, §§ 26-2B-1 to -7 (2007). The workers' compensation judge (WCJ) found that Worker Gregory Vialpando was qualified to participate in the State of New Mexico Department of Health Medical Cannabis Program authorized by the Compassionate Use Act and that such treatment would be reasonable and necessary medical care. The WCJ ordered Worker to pay for medical marijuana through the program and Employer and Insurer Ben's Automotive Services and Redwood Fire & Casualty (collectively, Employer) to reimburse Worker. Employer appeals, arguing that (1) the WCJ erred because his order is illegal and unenforceable under federal law and also thereby contrary to public policy, and (2) the Act and regulations promulgated pursuant thereto do not recognize reimbursement for medical marijuana. Because we agree with the WCJ that the Act authorizes reimbursement for medical marijuana, we affirm.
The outcome is a bit of a surprise since it seems the employer is being ordered to commit a federal crime. The court's discussion on that point is perhaps the most interesting part of the opinion (though the whole thing is worth a read for those who follow marijuana law.) It seems that sloppy lawyering on the part of the employer/insurer may have played a role in the outcome. Though the employer raised the preemption issue generally, it apparently failed to cite to a specific federal statute it would be violating by paying for its employee's marijuana.
Employer does not attempt to challenge the legality of the Compassionate Use Act. Instead, Employer asserts that, because marijuana remains a controlled substance under federal law, the order to reimburse Worker for money spent purchasing a course of medical marijuana “essentially requires” Employer to commit a federal crime. However, Employer does not cite to any federal statute it would be forced to violate, and we will not search for such a statute. See Headley v. Morgan Mgmt. Corp., 2005-NMCA-045, ¶ 15, 137 N.M. 339, 110 P.3d 1076 (“We will not review unclear arguments, or guess at what [a party’s] arguments might be.”).
Also of note, the court's discussion of whether requiring an employer to pay for medical marijuana is at-odds with federal public policy:
Employer also argues that the order should be reversed because it is contrary to federal public policy as reflected in the CSA and Gonzales. Worker contends that federal public policy supports medical marijuana because the Department of Justice has announced a somewhat deferential enforcement policy. Although not dispositive, we note that the Department of Justice has recently offered what we view as equivocal statements about state laws allowing marijuana use for medical and even recreational purposes. On one hand, the Department of Justice affirmed that marijuana remains illegal under the CSA and that federal prosecutors will continue to aggressively enforce the statute. But, on the other hand, and in the same documents, the Department of Justice identified eight areas of enforcement priority and indicated that outside of those priorities it would generally defer to state and local authorities. In addition, the Department of Justice stated that it informed the Governors of Washington and Colorado, two states that voted to legalize possession of marijuana and regulate its production and distribution, that it would defer its right to challenge those laws. We also observe that New Mexico public policy is clear. Our State Legislature passed the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act “to allow the beneficial use of medical cannabis in a regulated system for alleviating symptoms caused by debilitating medical conditions and their medical treatments.” Section 26-2B-2. We decline to reverse the order on the basis of federal law or public policy.
I'm not sure how much precedential value the opinion has. If the employer's attorneys were more thorough, I don't think they would have had much trouble pointing to a federal statute that they would be forced to violate by paying for marijuana (21 USC 844, as an accomplice, comes to mind.) But, because the employer didn't highlight a specific statute, the Court of Appeal was able to side-step the issue. I suspect attorneys for employers/insurers in future cases will be careful not to make this same mistake.