Wednesday, April 14, 2021
New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously upholds employer obligation to reimburse medical marijuana for workplace injury
The New Jersey Supreme Court yesterday issued a unanimous decision that serves as a reminder of just some of the legal questions that continue arising amid continued marijuana reforms. Specifically, in Vincent Hager v. M&K Construction, No. A-64-19 (N.J. Apr. 13, 2021) (available here), the top NJ court ruled that medical marijuana expenses were fairly covered under the state's workers' compensation act and that the federal Controlled Substances Act did not preclude or preempt the employer's reimbursement obligations. Here is how the extended opinion gets started:
Vincent Hager injured his back in a work-related accident in 2001 while employed by M&K Construction (M&K). For years thereafter, Hager received treatment for chronic pain with opioid medication and surgical procedures to no avail. In 2016, he enrolled in New Jersey’s medical marijuana program both as a means of pain management and to overcome an opioid addiction. Thereafter, a workers’ compensation court found that Hager “exhibit[ed] Permanent Partial Total disability” and ordered M&K to reimburse him for the ongoing costs of his prescription marijuana (the Order). The Appellate Division affirmed.
Before us, M&K contends that New Jersey’s Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act (Compassionate Use Act or the Act) is preempted as applied to the Order by the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Compliance with the Order, M&K claims, would subject it to potential federal criminal liability for aiding-and-abetting or conspiracy. M&K also asserts that medical marijuana is not reimbursable as reasonable or necessary treatment under the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). Finally, M&K argues that it fits within an exception to the Compassionate Use Act and is therefore not required to reimburse Hager for his marijuana costs.
We conclude that M&K does not fit within the Compassionate Use Act’s limited reimbursement exception. We also find that Hager presented sufficient credible evidence to the compensation court to establish that the prescribed medical marijuana represents, as to him, reasonable and necessary treatment under the WCA. Finally, we interpret Congress’s appropriations actions of recent years as suspending application of the CSA to conduct that complies with the Compassionate Use Act. As applied to the Order, we thus find that the Act is not preempted and that M&K does not face a credible threat of federal criminal aiding-and-abetting or conspiracy liability. We therefore affirm the judgment of the Appellate Division.