As marijuana use becomes legal in more states, producers and clients want to know: “What does this mean for me?” For some clients, it means greater access to affordable life insurance coverage. For producers, it means learning how to evaluate a client’s marijuana use by type and frequency, then pairing that client with the right carrier.
Preferred best non-smoker rates are out there — I’ve personally gotten them — but only if you convince your client that 100 percent honesty is the best way to proceed. Not only do HIPAA laws protect any disclosures they make, but the simple act of telling the truth ensures there will be no “surprise” findings based on the medical exam, which will save money, time and hassle for all involved.
Marijuana legislation: medicine or mistake?
As of this writing, 20 states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana. Fifteen additional states have pending legislation to legalize prescription-only marijuana use. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize its use for recreational purposes. An additional two states — Mississippi and Nebraska — are on the books for failed medical marijuana legislation. Regardless of our own views on the subject, it’s clear that society’s view of marijuana use is changing. It remains the most common illicit drug in the country, according to the U.S. government’s DrugFacts website, and remains classified as a Schedule I substance, with a high risk for abuse and no medicinal value.
If it seems strange that a drug prescribed for pain and nausea is classified as having no medicinal value, well, it is. To earn FDA approval, a drug must have consistent and measurable effects that remain consistent from use to use. So far, this hasn’t been possible with marijuana, since the plant contains hundreds of chemicals that can trigger slightly different effects in users — and that’s not taking into account the different varieties and hybrid strains available for use.
However, a synthetic version of THC was approved to treat nausea in cancer patients as long ago as 1985, in the drug called Dronabinol. A drug that contains chemicals taken directly from the marijuana plant was approved for public use in the UK in 2010, with approvals following in Spain, Canada, Germany and several other countries. The drug, called Sativex, is currently in Phase 3 clinical development in the U.S. Given the state of confusion over marijuana’s status as an “illicit drug” as well as a prescription medication, can clients who admit to smoking marijuana get insured?
Underwriting marijuana smokers
I’ve secured preferred best non-smoker rates for medicinal marijuana smokers, and standard non-smoker rates for recreational marijuana smokers. I’ve also seen preferred best non-smoker rates available for infrequent recreational use. You can get these rates, too, as long as you understand how the carriers define marijuana use.
Carriers still view the use of marijuana as illegal. Though it may be permitted in certain states, whether for recreation or medicine, it’s still illegal on the federal level. That being said, when it comes to underwriting, carriers typically disregard the question of legality and view the practice as a habit similar to tobacco use.
From an underwriting perspective, it’s easy to see why smoking marijuana makes insurers nervous. Smoke, whether from tobacco or marijuana, can cause harmful physical effects including lung irritation, persistent cough, phlegm and an increased chance of lung infections. Ever since the U.S. Surgeon General’s first report on smoking and health in 1964, carriers have charged smokers more than non-smokers. As a general rule, insurers assume all forms of smoking are harmful unless scientifically proven otherwise. However, even the government’s DrugAbuse.gov site admits it is unclear whether smoking marijuana contributes to lung cancer. That’s why there is a gray area in terms of how carriers treat marijuana users.
Nic West, Brokerage Director for Pinney Insurance Center, predicts industry-wide change on the issue. “With marijuana use becoming more common in both recreational and medicinal situations as well as various states approving that usage,” he says, “it’s only logical to assume that the life insurance industry will follow suit and relax their underwriting guidelines.”
Frequency is the key when it comes to assigning rates to a recreational marijuana smoker. For example, one carrier provides standard non-smoker rates based on infrequent use defined as twice a month, while another defines infrequency as smoking twice a week. The more carriers you work with, the more options you have for insuring these clients.