February 3, 2016

Committee votes to stop workers comp for medical marijuana

The House Judiciary voted along party lines on Wednesday to pass a bill that would stop the state requirement that employers reimburse costs for medical marijuana through worker’s compensation.

Medical marijuana prescription

Medical marijuana prescription

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Randal Crowder, R-Clovis, told the committee he was concerned that insurance companies may leave the state out of fear of being charged with breaking federal law.

“That’s my greatest fear,” Crowder said.

Medical cannabis is legal under state law in 23 states, including New Mexico, and the District of Columbia.

Gregory Vialpando, who was at the center of a court of appeals case regarding workers compensation and medical marijuana, spoke out in opposition to the bill. In 2014, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled that Vialpando could be reimbursed by worker’s compensation for his medical marijuana. Along with Vialpando, a handful of lawyers who represent employees spoke out against the bill. Those in the audience who supported the measure were mostly from insurance companies and representatives from commerce and business advocacy groups.

Republicans who spoke out in favor of the bill all said they struggled with their decision, but ultimately were concerned about going against federal law.

Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, seemed the most conflicted by supporting the bill. He said he was glad that people like Vialpando were able to stop taking addictive drugs and find comfort in medical marijuana.

“It angers me so much that we’re forcing people to take those kinds of drugs,” Pacheco said of opioids.

Pacheco has previously stated publicly that his wife has struggled with substance abuse in the past and that she recently celebrated ten years of sobriety. During Wednesday’s meeting, he called opioids “garbage” and “death sentences.” Pacheco said ultimately marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, so he had to vote against it.

“It’s going to hurt me inside to vote for this,” Pacheco said.

House Majority Floor Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, also said he had conflicting feelings regarding the bill. He too said he views medical marijuana as a safer option than opioids and that he supports the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act. However, he deferred to the federal government.

“Once again the federal government has put us in a very difficult spot,” Gentry said.

House Minority Leader Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said comments from Republicans were rooted in a “complete, fundamental misunderstanding” of criminal law. He said insurance providers should not be worried about aiding and abetting marijuana patients by issuing reimbursements. Egolf argued that if a company could be implicated in assisting buying or selling marijuana, insurance companies would not be alone.

“The first on the list would be Visa and Mastercard,” Egolf said, referring to credit card companies. “Get out the cuffs.”

Before the meeting came to a close, Gentry said he discovered there were some carve outs in the federal budget implying that marijuana is not a high priority in terms of convictions.

Pacheco added that he wasn’t sure how he would vote on the House floor.

Pacheco won’t have much more time to make up his mind; the House floor is the next stop for the bill.