Maine employers don't have to pay for medical marijuana under the state workers' compensation system because federal law supersedes state law, the state supreme court ruled Thursday.
The court concluded in a 5-2 decision that federal law takes precedence in a conflict between the federal Controlled Substances Act and the state medical marijuana law.
Existing case law demonstrates that an individual's right to use medical marijuana under state law "cannot be converted into a sword that would require another party" to engage in conduct that violates current federal law, Justice Jeffrey Hjelm wrote for the majority.
The legal case focused on whether a paper mill must pay for medical marijuana prescribed for a worker who was disabled after being hurt on the job in 1989.
Madawaska resident Gaetan Bourgoin won an appeal to the Workers' Compensation Board after arguing that marijuana is cheaper and safer than narcotics.
But the Twin Rivers Paper Co. argued that it shouldn't be required to cover the cost of medical marijuana and that doing so put it in violation of federal law.
The Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the Maine Legislature's exemption of medical marijuana patients from prosecution under state law "does not have the power to change or restrict the application of federal law that positively conflicts with state law."
Two dissenting justices wrote that the compelling story of how the injured worker was weaned from opioids by use of medical marijuana justified requiring the reimbursement.
"The result of the court's opinion today is to deprive (the worker) of reimbursement for medication that has finally given him relief from his chronic pain, and to perhaps force him to return to the use of opioids and other drugs...," Justice Joseph Jabar wrote.
Bourgoin, who suffered a back injury, plans to meet with his attorney to explore his legal options. He said Thursday that he's currently spending $400 out of pocket each month to fill his medical marijuana prescription.
His doctor suggested trying medical marijuana, and he said it took the edge off his chronic pain and allowed him to function. He said he has no interest is going back to opioids, which he said "ruined my life for 25 years."
"The medical marijuana gave me back a quality of life. With opioids, I was in bed, or on the couch, all the time," he said.
At least five states — Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico — have found medical marijuana treatment is reimbursable under their workers' compensation laws, according to the National Council for Compensation Insurance.
Florida and North Dakota, meanwhile, passed laws last year excluding medical marijuana treatment from workers' compensation reimbursement.