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U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Medical Cannabis Workers’ Compensation Case

June 22, 2022

Author: Jeremy M. Buchalski

On Tuesday, June 21, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States denied two similar petitions arising out of Minnesota cases in which injured workers sought reimbursement for medical marijuana to treat their work-related injuries. The two petitioners sought review of a Minnesota Supreme Court decision finding that the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) preempted Minnesota law, which resulted in the denial of coverage for medical marijuana in connection with their workers’ compensation claims. 

Background
This issue has been addressed by many state courts over the years, dating back to 2014, when New Mexico’s Court of Appeals authorized the reimbursement of medical marijuana in workers’ compensation claims in Vialpando v. Ben’s Automotive Services, but in the past few years has been addressed by courts in Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and most recently, Minnesota, with mixed results. Courts in Maine, Massachusetts and Minnesota have identified a positive conflict between state law and the CSA, while those in New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey found no conflict and authorized reimbursement. Due to the split between the two sets of states, the petitioners sought review from the Supreme Court. 

Before denying the petitions, the Supreme Court invited the U.S. Department of Justice to weigh in. Although the DOJ’s brief took the position that the CSA does preempt state law, it also argued that the states did not meaningfully address this issue, and urged the Supreme Court to stay out of this area of emerging law. The Supreme Court did exactly that. 

The Supreme Court’s decision is not inconsistent with its earlier refusal to address matters concerning the Schedule I classification of marijuana under the CSA. Court watchers were hopeful that this time would be different; however, due to the legitimate split between the circuit courts, and coming on the heels of strong language by Justice Clarence Thomas last year that questioned whether the federal government’s continuing prohibition on marijuana is necessary or proper, the Court declined. 

Justice Thomas’s statement was made accompanying the denial of a writ of certiorari in the matter of Standing Akimbo LLC v. United States, which asked the court to address whether a medical marijuana dispensary could properly deduct ordinary business expenses in violation of section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code. In his statement, Justice Thomas bluntly acknowledged that the reasoning behind the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Gonzales v. Raich (the last time the Supreme Court ruled on federal marijuana policy), which held that the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce authorized it to prohibit the local cultivation and use of marijuana, has been “greatly undermined” by federal policies of the past 17 years. He characterized the federal government’s current approach as a contradictory and unstable “half-in, half-out regime” that “strains basic principles of federalism and conceals traps for the unwary.” 

Analysis
This Supreme Court’s decision to remain on the sidelines of the debate over marijuana legalization is disappointing to many who were hoping to see the high court help to break the logjam in Congress. The decision also leaves in place the clear conflict over workers’ compensation reimbursement of medical cannabis in state court decisions and facilitates the potential for further conflict as this issue continues to percolate throughout the country. Because each of the decisions have relied on different justifications to either deny reimbursement as preempted by the CSA or authorize reimbursement, unless a state has a clear controlling law on the reimbursement of marijuana in the context of workers’ compensation, it may be difficult for parties and practitioners to predict how a state may address this issue.

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