Maryland lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow worker’s compensation to cover the cost of medical cannabis in order to provide an alternative to prescription opioid use for pain resulting from a work-related injury.
Because medical cannabis is not currently covered by worker’s compensation in Maryland, those struggling with work-related injuries are instead prescribed opioids like Oxycodone or Percocet for pain relief which are covered.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is battling a nationwide opioid epidemic/overdose crisis, caused in part, by overprescription. When a physician decides a patient no longer needs opioids or recognizes signs of abuse, they revoke the prescription, often moving the patient to turn to the illicit market for heroin, which due to fentanyl poisoning of the drug supply, makes overdose more likely.
“Even short term use of opioids, though oftentimes necessary, is quite risky,” said Delegate Kriselda Valderrama, sponsor of H.B. 683. “The CDC has found that addiction to these drugs can occur in as few as five days.”
Conversely, cannabis effectively reduces pain and inflammation without the addictive properties of opioids. Cannabis is also significantly cheaper and safer than opioids and does not reduce in effectiveness over time. While cannabis users will develop a tolerance to the psychoactive effects of THC, studies have shown that tolerance does not affect the overall pain relief enjoyed by its users.
H.B. 683 would require employers or their insurance to cover the cost of medical cannabis treatment under worker’s compensation, providing employees with a safer alternative to prescription opioid treatment for work-related injuries. Maryland would be the sixth state to require worker’s compensation to cover medical cannabis, following behind Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico.
The bill is sponsored in the house by Del. Valderrama from Prince George’s County and cross-filed in the senate by Senator Brian Feldman from Montgomery County. The House of Delegates Economic Matters Committee held a meeting on the house bill where members listened to testimony from advocates for the legislation.
Aaron Shepherd is a Maryland resident and cannabis advocate who testified at the committee meeting to discuss his opioid addiction between 2002-2006 after being prescribed opioids for pain relief following a series of knee surgeries.
Then, in January 2020, Shepherd suffered a ten-foot fall at work and fractured two vertebrae in his spine.
“With my past addiction, I feared the medicine more than my injuries,” Shepherd said. “I knew immediately I would begin fighting two separate battles.”
Shepherd said he did not want to use the opioids he was prescribed for pain following his release from the hospital in fear of relapse, and began treating himself with medical cannabis instead, which was not covered by his worker’s compensation.
Shepherd said he and other workers “have access to deadly opioids at no cost when we are willing to use a safer, healthy alternative.” Shepherd has been paying for medical cannabis out of pocket, “I chose my health, which has cost me dearly.”
Olga Hall, a registered nurse and cannabis advocate, testified before the committee about her experience with patients receiving prescription opioids via worker’s compensation: “When a person is injured at work, they are more likely to be prescribed opioids [than cannabis] right now as treatment. Long term use of opioids creates an unsafe environment where medical prescribers are prescribing excessively higher and higher doses of opioids, sedatives and muscle relaxers and then keeping those claimants on these drugs beyond initial injury or surgery period which extends the time they have to stay on worker’s comp.”
While some committee members expressed concerns about requiring employers or their insurance to cover the cost of medical cannabis, an expense currently incurred by the patient, Hall reminded Delegates that employers would likely save money by paying for medical cannabis in lieu of prescription opioids.
“The average medical marijuana user spends about $136 every ten days. The average 30-day cost for one single opioid is average $251, analgesics is another $100, muscle relaxers is another $150. If you’re on three medications, you’re already looking at $700-800 a month which is far more than what you’re presumably spending on cannabis,” Hall said.
Federal government employers located in Maryland and those with contracts from the federal government will be exempt from the medical cannabis coverage requirement because their worker’s compensation is governed by federal law where cannabis is federally illegal, for the time being.
“I have observed these vibrant, injured workers slowly wilt away to shells of themselves. They wilt as the dosage of opioids increases and the psychological effects erode their lifestyle” Jason Plotkin said, CEO of Plotkin Legal Team who represents employees in work-related injury cases, including injury due to the overprescription of opioids covered by worker’s compensation.
“The opioid epidemic is undeniable, and it should be made clear that injured workers have the right to use medical cannabis,” Plotkin said.
The Senate version of the legislation is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, Feb. 18 at 1 p.m.