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Maine Supreme Court: Workers’ Compensation Does Not Cover Medical Marijuana

Today’s ruling throws out an earlier decision that ordered the Twin Rivers Paper Company to pay a workers’ compensation claim for medical marijuana.

Adam Drury

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Maine Supreme Court: Workers' Compensation Does Not Cover Medical Marijuana
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Maine’s Supreme Court handed down a ruling today that the state’s workers’ compensation system does not cover the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The ruling is yet another instance where federal prohibition is creating problems for states with legal cannabis programs.

Tuesday’s ruling stems from a workers’ compensation case involving an employee with the Twin Rivers Paper Company, LLC. Gaetan H. Bourgoin suffered a back injury on the job with the company. Bourgoin then received a medical cannabis recommendation to treat the related back pain. An initial order required the company to pay for its employee’s medical marijuana. But the Supreme Court ultimately sided with the employer’s objections.

Maine Supreme Court Says Covering Medical Marijuana Forces Companies To Commit A Federal Crime

The conflict between federal and state drug laws has come to a head in Maine. And after a lengthy court battle, Maine’s Supreme Court ruled that companies are not required to reimburse employees for workers’ compensation claims involving medical marijuana.

Many state governments have pushed back against the looming threat of a federal crackdown on state-legal cannabis programs. But in Maine, the Supreme Court cited the federal Controlled Substances Act in its opinion on the case.

Essentially, The Maine Supreme Court ruled that federal law preempts state law. In this case, that means the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) preempts Maine’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act (MMUMA). In turn, requiring a company to pay for medical marijuana would be tantamount to requiring them to break federal law.

“Prosecuted or not, the fact remains that Twin Rivers would be forced to commit a federal crime if it complied with the directive of the Workers’ Compensation Board,” Main Supreme Court Associate Justice Jeffrey L. Hjelm wrote in the Court’s opinion.

In other words, if Twin Rivers had paid out the workers’ comp claim, it would have engaged in criminal aiding and abetting.

Are Maine’s Medical Marijuana Patients Stranded In A Legal No-Man’s Land?

In the opinion, Hjelm did acknowledge the “impossibility” of complying with both federal and Maine law. Further, the state legislature of Maine does not have the power to change or block a federal law that directly conflicts with state law.

Yet that doesn’t preclude the possibility that the federal government would simply not apply the CSA to Maine’s MMJ program. In short, federal prosecution is just a speculative threat, not an actual one.

But Maine’s Supreme Court deferred to federal law, deciding to err on the side of caution, rather than rule in favor of a program that serves over 40,000 registered patients.

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s ruling was not unanimous. And in his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Joseph M. Jabar wrote that it would be quite possible to comply with both the CSA and Maine’s Medical Marijuana Act.

Jabar argued that in order to criminally prosecute Twin Rivers, the government would have to prove the employer had a specific intent to violate federal law. But that would be impossible to prove, argued Jabar. In his view, Twin Rivers would not be an active participant in its employee’s cannabis use.

“I do not agree that mere knowledge constitutes active participation in the commission of a crime,” Jabar wrote. Nevertheless, finding that federal law preempts state law in Maine, the Supreme Court ruled that the MMUMA’s authority is “without effect”.

And that means throwing out the previous Appellate Court ruling that had ordered Twin Rivers to reimburse its employee. Bourgoin, simply put, now has to purchase medical cannabis out of pocket. Workers’ compensation won’t pay for it.

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