Although support for medical marijuana is growing, insurers and healthcare plans continue to deny coverage for this treatment. This won’t change until marijuana is declassified as a Schedule I controlled substance under federal drug laws, which probably won’t happen anytime soon.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 21 jurisdictions. Two states, Washington and Colorado, permit the recreational use of marijuana. Yet the distribution, sale, or possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
This dichotomy has raised concerns about how healthcare and workers compensation insurers handle demands to pay for medical marijuana. In addition to conflicts between federal and state drug laws, some have concerns that insurers or employers potentially could be liable for injuries caused by marijuana use. Because of these uncertainties, in 2013 the National Council on Compensation Insurance — a prominent workers compensation organization — identified medical marijuana as an emerging issue for the industry.
Insurers may have valid concerns about having to pay for medical marijuana. However, workers compensation policies and healthcare plans don’t actually cover the treatment, and it likely will remain that way until the federal government reclassifies the drug under federal laws.
A brief history
Prior to 1970, marijuana was legal for medicinal purposes. This changed with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug. The Act defines Schedule I substances as those that have a high potential for abuse and “no currently accepted medical use.” Thus, by definition, marijuana is deemed to provide no medical benefits.
Because healthcare plans and insurance policies typically exclude coverage for experimental treatments, insurers may continue to decline payment for marijuana as long as it remains on Schedule I.
This classification is difficult to justify. The Schedule I list includes drugs like heroin, which are much more dangerous and addictive than marijuana. Schedule II drugs include cocaine and methamphetamines, which supposedly have less potential for abuse than marijuana, or have some accepted medical benefit. Yet few would agree that marijuana is more dangerous than these Schedule II drugs.