On April 13, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s published ruling that an employer ordered to reimburse an injured worker for the costs of his medical marijuana does not violate the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in Vincent Hager v. M & K Construction.
The employer, M & K Construction (M & K), argued that by reimbursing the petitioner for his medical marijuana, it was committing a crime by aiding and abetting in violation of federal law. M & K also argued that the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act (NJWCA) did not consider medical marijuana as “reasonable and necessary” medical treatment, and therefore, is not reimbursable. The employer further argued that it is covered under the exception of the Compassionate Use Act (CUA), N.J.S.A. 24:6I-1, and therefore, should not be forced to reimburse the petitioner for the cost of the medical marijuana.
Vincent Hager, a former employee of M & K, injured himself within his scope of employment back in 2001. Hager underwent a surgical procedure and was prescribed opioid medications for years to cope with the pain. In 2016, Hager began using marijuana after he registered with the New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program. After a trial at the New Jersey Division of Workers’ Compensation, the judge ordered Hager’s employer to reimburse him for his medically necessary and reasonable costs of marijuana.
After the Appellate Division ruled in favor of Hager, the employer again took the adverse court ruling to the highest court of New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s finding and M & K was ordered to pay for Hager’s ongoing medical marijuana costs. The court opined that M & K did not meet the exemption of reimbursement of medical marijuana and that the Legislature did not name New Jersey workers’ compensation insurance as part of the exempt entities. The court also opined that the judge’s decision was backed up by medical expert testimony. The medical experts narrowed down Hager’s reasonable and necessary medical treatment to medical marijuana or opioids. The court gave deference to the workers’ compensation judge who, after considering a risk/benefit analysis, found that medical marijuana was more appropriate for Hager.
The New Jersey Supreme Court then went on to mention that the state of New Jersey has recently enacted legalization for medical and recreational use of marijuana. Nonetheless, the court took M & K’s argument of potential criminal liability of violating CSA into consideration and found that there is no conflict between CSA and state laws allowing the use of medical marijuana. Furthermore, the court opined that M & K was not violating federal law, when it was forced by court order to reimburse Hager’s medical marijuana costs.
As the state of New Jersey is in an era of decriminalizing the use of medical and recreational marijuana, it was only a matter of time before medicinal marijuana started to be commonplace within the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation world.
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