Comp and Cannabis: PA Allows Access to Medical Marijuana, But Not to the Whole Plant


By Dara Barney

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


Harrisburg, PA ( – Pennsylvania is about to meet a haze of approved marijuana ingestible(s), including vape pens and oils… But it will remain a stranger to some of the standard smoke-ables and brownies/treats some have grown to know and love.   

Twenty-seven establishments were approved this summer to manage 52 medical marijuana dispensaries. One joint, Lebanon Wellness Center LLC, will open in the middle of 2018’s first quarter, writes Daniel Walmer of the Lebanon Daily News.

“…Governor Tom Wolf signed legislation legalizing marijuana in Pennsylvania in April 2016 for a variety of medical conditions, including AIDS, autism, cancer, chronic pain and Crohn's disease. The legislation legalized only non-smokeable forms of the substance,” according to the article. 

A list of physicians qualified to certify a patient has one of the 17 conditions is available here, courtesy of Rick Lee at the York Daily Record and the PA Dept. of Health.

April Hutcheson, Communications Director for the PA Dept. of Health, told via email that the Dept. is currently in the implementation process, and “…it is responsible for implementing every aspect of the program.”

Becky Dansky, Legislative Counsel at the State Policies Department for the Marijuana Policy Project, took the time to note some topics of significance.

“…At this point several of the licensed grower/processors have been given the green light to begin planting. I think we can expect dispensaries to begin serving patients in the spring of 2018. Like most states, there was some pushback after the permits were awarded, mostly from people whose applications were rejected,” she said.

“It does not look like any of the cases have merit and the program will likely move forward, thankfully. It's a fairly good program, especially for a state with huge Republican margins in both chambers. Unfortunately, it does not include patient access to whole plant (aka bloom, flower, dried leaves) or edibles.”

She said it could be negative for patients, because some have a preference as to how they consume the product. “…Also, manufactured edibles are far safer and more consistent than individuals making edibles in their own homes,” she said.

And legalization as a whole could be very far off, according to Dansky.

But what does all of this mean for injured workers?

“…Typically workers’ comp will not cover the cost of medical marijuana. There is one case in CT where the court ruled in the patient's favor and I believe there was another case recently in NM,” she said.

“Because marijuana is still considered a Schedule I narcotic by our federal government (even though 47 states recognize its medical value), no insurance, public or private, will cover it at this time. Some states are able to help patients through programs for those facing financial hardship, but in many states it is so expensive that patients are either still unable to access it or forced to turn to the illicit market. Cost is one of the biggest obstacles for patients as a result.”

Steve Ryan, a PA attorney from My Comp Lawyers out of Harrisburg, has seen his clients keep up with the news and start to ask questions.

“…In a general sense, the climate to medical marijuana in Pennsylvania seems to be improving.  Obviously, the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act has something to do with that.  Right now, it is still being implemented, and as a result, we probably need some more time to determine how effective/beneficial it is,” he said. “…medical marijuana is poised to be one of many alternatives to opioid medications.”

Although Ryan hasn’t seen any pursuance of coverage for medical marijuana from injured workers, he thinks it could happen soon. He also noted potential challenges in workers’ comp, specifically about who would or wouldn’t pay: insurance, self-insured, and others. 

“…What if an employee is using medical marijuana for a non-work-related condition, and he is injured on the job? What will employers do when injured workers return to work a light duty job with a prescription for medical marijuana? What will the attitude be on these issues from the bench? We just don’t know yet,” he asked.

“…The law itself speaks to reimbursement and specifically does not require insurance carriers and health care plans to provide coverage. This is certainly enough to generate pushback from workers’ compensation carriers.”

And marijuana isn’t the only hot legal topic that could affect injured workers and medical treatment in the state.

“…Specifically, some legislators seek to impose formularies on injured workers in an effort to save costs,” he said. “The argument is a cost-based argument that basically says, ‘Medications cost too much, and we are in the midst of an opioid epidemic… therefore, we need formularies to keep costs down and keep people off opioids.’”

With PA medical costs on the decrease for a long period of time, “…It seems to me that the legislature should work harder to increase access for injured workers to alternatives to opioid medications such as physical therapy, chiropractic care, medical marijuana, and/or pain creams rather than limit it,” he said.

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