Cannabis in the workplace just got even more complicated. Under Federal law, employers have the right to terminate an employee if they discover that person uses cannabis, whether illegally or legally through state medical and recreational laws.

However, a recent court ruling has added another layer to the liabilities undertaken by employers and their insurance firms.

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New Jersey Judge Ingrid French, who has worked with the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, recently ruled in favor of an employee seeking reimbursement for medical cannabis expenses after a workplace injury.

Andrew Watson, a 39-year-old worker at an 84 Lumber location, developed intractable neuropathic pain after a power saw accident in Watson enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis program in 2014, and was seeking insurance coverage for both past cannabis expenses as well as future treatments.

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Judge French heard expert testimony from a psychiatrists with neurological focuses, and agreed with their assessment that Watson’s condition was well within New Jersey’s list of qualifying medical conditions for cannabis use.

While the ruling does nothing to protect workers from termination from anti-cannabis employers, it does set an interesting precedent for the legitimacy of medical cannabis to treat injuries sustained in the workplace.

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One major consideration for other insurance companies is that covering patients using medical cannabis is going to be far less expensive than subsidizing costly opioid treatments, not to mention the human costs associated with the opioid epidemic.

Lawyers representing 84 Lumber and their insurance provider said they do not intend to appeal the decision, which is evidence of a paradigm shift when it comes to cannabis as a universal medical application.

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Cannabis legalization is sweeping the nation, and beyond recreational use, well over half of American states have enacted some legal language regarding the use of medical cannabis for those with debilitating conditions. It is a little bit tricky considering that there is no standard between states as to which conditions are applicable for cannabis treatment.

Some states are incredibly limited, while others like California have unmistakably inclusive policies that cover any pain that might affect normal daily functions.

As these states adopt medical cannabis policies, employers will have to adjust certain workplace policies to reflect both the state and national precedents. These adjustments are of major concern to employer groups, especially in more conservative states that have only recently adopted medical cannabis laws, like Arkansas.
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Many newly-initiated medical cannabis states are holding seminars for employers to learn more about cannabis policies in general, and where the liabilities are likely to present themselves. Some areas of discussion will be conflicts between federal and state cannabis laws, as well as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and OSHA regulations regarding drug testing.

At the end of the day, drug-free workplace policies can absolutely remain intact, however, cannabis is especially tricky to test for use in a working capacity, as cannabinoids stay within an individual’s system anywhere from one to forty-five days. We have certainly not heard the end of the potential conflicts based on employers checking for on-site impairment versus legal medical use at home.

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Certain states, like Nevada, have medical cannabis laws that require employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees who hold valid medical registry cards for cannabis use. While Nevada courts have yet to rule on a case that covers this conflict, it is reasonable to assume that the language exists to protect folks who are not abusing the medical cannabis system.

Overall, the ruling was a positive step forward for medical cannabis across the country, but there are still 49 other states that will eventually have to approach this tricky situation.

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