Efforts to Legalize Marijuana Could be ‘Important Step’ Toward Needed Research

Nancy Grover

Washington, DC (WorkersCompensation.com) – This month’s House passage of legislation to legalize marijuana on the federal level came as no surprise to several workers’ compensation experts. The fact that chances of Senate passage right now are slim to none does not negate the fact that the issue will likely be addressed — and approved — at some point soon. That may come as good news for the industry, several said.

On Friday, the House voted 228-164 to approve the measure, representing the first time either chamber of Congress had ever endorsed the legalization of cannabis. H.R. 3884, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 ‘MORE’ would remove the drug from the Controlled Substances Act and eliminate criminal penalties for a person who manufactures, distributes or possesses marijuana. It would also authorize a 5 percent tax on marijuana that would fund community and small business grant programs to help those most impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.

Several workers’ compensation stakeholders said it could help clarify challenges surrounding the issue.

“The medical community and the pharma industry could perform the robust research that is sorely needed on clinical safety and effectiveness, dose formulations and pharmacology, the dose-response curve, and workplace/public safety,” said Robert Goldberg, MD, chief Medical Officer and SVP at Healthesystems, who said overall approval would be a game changer for the healthcare system, including workers’ compensation. “Once cannabis is no longer Schedule I, physicians could prescribe, pharmacists could dispense, patients could legally acquire and use in all 50 states, and payers would no longer be restrained by federal or state regulations to reimburse for medically necessary and appropriate prescriptions/ recommendations.”

Among the current challenges for employers is the lack of testing to determine if a worker is actually impaired from marijuana use, since it stays in the body long after its effect wears off. “The science of marijuana and its potential impact on workplace safety has not yet caught up with the social realities of widespread marijuana use,” said Mark Walls, VP of Communications and Strategic Analysis with Safety National. “Legalizing marijuana under Federal law could be the important step to getting more research into this subject.”

“Ultimately, with its widespread use, I think legalizing it federally is a good idea,” added Michael Stack, Principal of Amaxx Risk Solutions. “We need to be able to do more research on the subject to make better-informed decisions on its use.”

In addition to last week’s House passage, voters in four more states opted to legalize recreational marijuana, while two voted to legalize medicinal marijuana, in the November elections. Acceptance of the use of marijuana is only growing and will continue to do so, the workers’ compensation professionals believe.

“Injured workers will be increasingly using it – before, during or after their occupational injury. Even some claims adjusters and other work comp professionals might fit into that profile,” said Mark Pew, SVP of Product Development and Marketing for Preferred Medical and a frequent commenter on the subject. “So if there are some risk managers that still haven’t created a policy for how to address medical marijuana in their Work Comp claims or workplaces for some unknown reason, they really need to. Whether the organization or the individual believes in the efficacy of cannabis or not is immaterial at this point.”

The House passage of the bill shows that the chamber “is ready to work in tandem with the Biden-Harris Transition Team on major legislative reforms to modify medical delivery benefits for injured workers, including the elimination of the reliance on addictive opioid medications to relieve pain,” opined Jon L. Gelman, a New Jersey-based applicants’ attorney. “The action is a clear indication that nationalized medical delivery will be on the table for consideration. Should the Democrats win the US Senate race in Georgia in January, then an upgrade of workers’ compensation systems is predictable.”

The ultimate legalization of marijuana could have dramatic effects on the workers’ compensation system, from a short term- and long term-perspective.

“Short term, like some states that have legalized recreational marijuana or ‘adult use’ as its now called, I think we would see medical marijuana usage drop,” said Albert B. Randall, Jr., principal at Franklin & Prokopik in Baltimore, Md. “However, as recreational taxes rise and people learn that they can potentially have someone else pay for medical marijuana, i.e., workers’ compensation payors, and more states permit cannabis as a WC remedy, medical usage will likely rise again dramatically.”

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