According to the website ProCon.com, as of November 2017, 29 states had adopted laws legalizing the medical use of marijuana. The specifics of these laws vary greatly. For example, some states limit the potency of marijuana that may be legally dispensed while others specify the medical conditions for which it may be prescribed.
With a practitioner’s recommendation, a “qualifying patient” (“QP”) can obtain a medical marijuana card. That card permits him or her to buy (from a state-licensed dispensary) marijuana at a rate of up to 2.5 ounces every 2 weeks and possess up to 2.5 ounces at any time. Subject to some conditions, a patient may also grow up to 12 marijuana plants. As of April 2017, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported that there were just under 126,000 QPs in the state.
Regardless of how a state handles the issue, however, it is clear that marijuana remains completely illegal under federal law – there is no exception for prescribed medical use. In January 2018 Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Justice was rescinding two Obama-era memos describing a “hands off” policy regarding prosecutions in those states that have legalized either medical or recreational pot use. How aggressively the DOJ pursues dispensaries, prescribers or “QPs” remains to be seen, but the message from Washington was otherwise clear: federal law trumps state law.
Medical marijuana use by workers and compensation claimants raises several intriguing questions of both Arizona and federal law.
This is a relevant concern if the QP’s “qualifying condition” is work-related; for example, a health care worker accidentally infected with hepatitis C.
In Arizona, this question is squarely addressed by a 2015 amendment to AMMA providing that AMMA may not be interpreted so as to require an Arizona workers compensation insurer to pay such reimbursement.
The answer here is less clear. Remember that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. As such, insurers that wish to reimburse QPs must decide whether to risk prosecution under federal law.
In addition, dispensaries in many states have reportedly had difficulty establishing accounts with legitimate banks. Might an insurer’s bank decline to process a workers compensation payment if it determines that the payment relates to a marijuana purchase? Could the federal government seize the accounts of companies that pay medical marijuana claims? State and federal medical record confidentiality laws suggest the bank could not legitimately obtain this information, but breaches of confidentiality do occur.
Arizona law is also clear on this point. Nothing in AMMA prevents an employer from enforcing a drug-free workplace policy as against a QP unless it can be shown that the individual’s blood concentration of marijuana’s active chemical is below that which causes impairment.
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