The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday denied petitions to hear two cases challenging Minnesota’s refusal to allow coverage for medical cannabis through the state’s workers’ compensation program. In both cases, workers sought a review of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision finding that the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) supersedes state law, resulting in a denial of coverage for medicinal cannabis for the employees’ work-related injuries.
The Supreme Court invited the U.S. Department of Justice to file a brief in the case before making a decision. In its response, the Justice Department agreed with the Minnesota court that the CSA does preempt state law. But attorneys with the Justice Department also argued that the states have not adequately addressed the issue of federal preeminence and urged the Supreme Court to reserve judgment on evolving law.
The case was not the first time a state court had ruled on workers’ compensation coverage for medical pot. In 2014, the New Mexico Court of Appeals approved the reimbursement of claims for medicinal cannabis for work-related injuries. But rulings on similar cases in Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Minnesota have not been consistent. Courts in New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey found that state law was not in conflict with the CSA and authorized workers’ compensation claims for medical cannabis. But in Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, judges have ruled that federal law takes precedence.
Is the SCOTUS Decision Bad News?
Attorney Anne Davis, the co-founder of Bennabis Health, a company specializing in affordable medical cannabis access for patients, says that the Supreme Court’s decision to decline to hear the cases is not necessarily a negative outcome for patients.
“While I would’ve loved a decision by the federal government mandating that cannabis is in fact a covered benefit, [the court] deferring to the states could be good in the grand scheme of the industry,” Davis writes in an email to High Times. “The more that the Supreme Court defers to states’ rights, I think the more it helps our growing industry. If the federal government takes the hands-off approach and leaves it to states’ rights, that allows the cannabis industry to grow and expand.”
With states taking the lead on pot reform, Davis believes federal legislation that permits cannabis trade between the states would create the most favorable climate for the industry.
“The problem we’re left to deal with is interstate commerce,” said Davis. “If we can somehow navigate that, then I think state rights having control over the cannabis industry is a much better option than the federal government rescheduling and allowing big Pharma to take control.”
Some advocates for cannabis policy reform had hoped the Supreme Court would weigh in on the Minnesota cases following comments from Justice Clarence Thomas last year indicating he believes the federal prohibition on pot no longer makes sense with so many states passing legislation in conflict with federal law.
“A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the federal government’s piecemeal approach,” he wrote.
Commentating on a case the Supreme Court declined to hear in which a Colorado cannabis dispensary challenged federal policy denying standard business deductions for weed companies, Thomas said that a 2005 high court ruling upholding the federal prohibition on cannabis possession may be out of date.
“Federal policies of the past 16 years have greatly undermined its reasoning,” he continued. “The federal government’s current approach is a half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana.”
This week’s action by the U.S. Supreme Court leaves many unanswered questions about the viability of workers’ compensation coverage for medical cannabis. In an analysis of the denial to grant the petitions, The National Law Review wrote that the “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.”
A.J. Herrington is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering cannabis news, business, and culture.