George Vialpando injured his back while working for Ben’s Automotive Services in Santa Fe in 2000. While trying to find relief from his back pain, Mr. Vialpando looked into becoming a medical marijuana patient. He was approved. Mr. Vialpando then applied to have his medical marijuana covered by the workers’ compensation plan, which was approved by a judge. The judge found the request to be ‘reasonable and necessary.’ The employer then appealed the decision to the New Mexico Court of Appeals.
Per HR BLR:
Court of appeals’ ruling
Ben’s Automotive raised two arguments for why it shouldn’t be required to reimburse Vialpando: First, the Workers’ Compensation Act doesn’t authorize reimbursement for the cost of medical marijuana, and second, the workers’ compensation judge’s order was illegal under federal law.
Ben’s Automotive argued that it was being forced to violate federal law because marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, so it’s illegal under federal law to use or possess it. There’s no exception under federal law for the medical use of marijuana. Both arguments were rejected by the court of appeals.
Workers’ Compensation Act authorizes reimbursement
The court disposed of the first argument in short order. It found that the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Act doesn’t prohibit a healthcare provider from certifying that an injured worker should receive medical marijuana in the course of the treatment for his workplace injury. As long as the treatment is “reasonable and necessary” and approved by a workers’ compensation judge, the employer is responsible for paying for it under the Act.
Federal law doesn’t bar reimbursement for medical pot under workers’ comp
The appeals court ruling on the second argument is more controversial and has caught the attention of the national media. Ben’s Automotive argued that requiring it to reimburse Vialpando for the cost of his medical marijuana meant it was essentially being required to violate federal drug laws. Under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, federal law generally trumps state law when a federal law and a state law directly conflict. The court of appeals rejected that argument also.
The appeals court found no direct conflict between federal law and the Compassionate Use Act. It further noted that Ben’s Automotive failed to cite to any specific federal law it was being forced to violate. Finally, the court rejected the public policy arguments, noting that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has recently affirmed that even though marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the department is prioritizing its enforcement efforts in eight specific areas
This case will no doubt be appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court. How they will rule is anyone’s guess at this point. However, despite what the New Mexico Supreme Court says, their ruling will also likely be appealed, this time to the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court may or may not decide to take the case. If they do, it will be very interesting to see how they rule, and what the legal reasoning is behind their ruling. This case is worth following for sure.