Comp and Cannabis in AK: Taking a Proactive and Reactive Approach to Marijuana

11.03.2017


By Dara Barney

This is the next article in WorkersCompensation.com's “Comp and Cannabis” series, as Editor Dara Barney explores medical marijuana legislation state-by-state, and what it means regarding workers' compensation.

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Juneau, AK (WorkersCompensation.com) – Within 50 miles from Russia, Alaska might seem pretty far off from the rest of the U.S. But, The Last Frontier state is familiarizing itself with medical and recreational use of marijuana, just like other similar U.S. mainland states. 

Recreationally, marijuana use is legal in the state. According to the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services (DHSS): It seems you’ve got the green light If you are 21 and over, consume in a non-public area (such as a home, etc.), and avoid driving while you are high. Also, other rules and restrictions apply.

As far as medical use: The state’s registry enables patients with “qualifying, debilitating medical conditions” to get signed up and receive a medical use I.D.

Ballot Measure 8 (AS 17.37) was passed 19 years ago, in which the registry was born, Sarah Oates, Program Coordinator for the Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office, told WorkersCompensation.com. Ballot Measure 2 (AS 17.38) was passed three years ago, which outlined a start for commercial marijuana.

“There have not been any laws adopted in this state that differentiate between commercial medical marijuana and recreational marijuana, or that provide for medical marijuana dispensaries or cultivators apart from commercial marijuana establishments licensed under AS 17.38,” Oates said. So marijuana sold legally in Alaska is looked at as “regulated/commercial,” as opposed to medical or recreational. 

“The MMR (Medical Marijuana Registry) is available for patients with qualifying conditions and provides affirmative defense and a legal avenue for use among minor children given parental consent,” according to Chief of Health Research and Vital Statistics Heidi Lengdorfer, Division of Public Health, DHSS.

And registration numbers seem to be pretty steady. “Over the last five years, MMR utilization has remained relatively stable with a slight decrease most evident in the last two years,” she said. DHSS manages the Medical Marijuana Program, which includes overseeing the registry. “DHSS approves or denies applications for registry cards on an annual basis, with an option for the cardholder to renew.”

Even though both medical and recreational use is legal in Alaska, DHSS acknowledges possible risks on its website: “…Many products that can be used as medicine have harmful side effects. Those effects may be more pronounced depending on how often the marijuana is used. There is evidence that regular use of marijuana increases the risk of heart and lung problems, mental health problems, and injury.[1] Less is known about health issues that might be caused by infrequent marijuana use.” 

And the lingering question: What about injured workers and medical marijuana as a treatment?

“The department (DHSS) does not collect this level of information, as the application requires a physician’s signed statement stating that the patient has been diagnosed with a qualifying debilitating medical condition and the conclusion of the patient's physician that the patient might benefit from the medical use of marijuana. Neither the condition nor the patient’s employment situation are collected,” Lengdorfer said.

Although this topic isn’t under the Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office jurisdiction, Oates said, “…AS 17.37.040(d)(1) states that ‘Nothing in this chapter requires any accommodation of any medical use of marijuana in any place of employment.’”

Marie Marx, Director of Alaska’s Workers’ Compensation Division, said that the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act doesn’t call on marijuana as a treatment, but doesn’t exclude the option either. “…Generally, an employer must pay for all reasonable and necessary work-related medical treatment,” she said.

But has the issue come up?

“…If a dispute arises under the Act, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board resolves the dispute. The Board has not yet been asked to resolve a dispute relating to medical marijuana as medical treatment,” she said.

Anchorage attorney Elliott T. Dennis (Law Offices of Elliott T. Dennis) admitted he didn’t have a lot of experience in the area of injured workers and medical marijuana as a treatment, but he did say, “I have a large number of workers’ (sic) compensation clients. To the extent they use marijuana, they are not seeking reimbursement. I can't imagine a workers’ compensation insurer being willing to pay for medical marijuana, but I could be dead wrong on (that) (sic).”

“…I suppose, if it is prescribed by a medical doctor and if it is an established treatment for the medical condition, one would have a good argument that it should be reimbursed. Typically, insurance companies refuse to reimburse any treatment other than mainstream treatment,” he said.

The Workers’ Compensation Division doesn’t take a stance on marijuana as a treatment, but Marx acknowledged the challenges ahead in the new-ish industry in the state.

“…Since businesses began operations and utilizing employee labor, the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Division has encountered a great deal of employer compliance issues in the marijuana industry, specifically employers failing to insure for workers’ compensation liability as required by law,” she said. “The Division is responding proactively through collaboration with the Alcohol & Marijuana Control Office, and reactively through enforcement and penalties.”

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