Supreme Court Sidesteps Workers' Comp Marijuana Cases

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a pair of decisions out of the Minnesota Supreme Court which held that employers cannot be required to reimburse workers for marijuana used to treat on-the-job injuries because the substance is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act. 


In both cases, a workers’ compensation judge awarded the injured worker reimbursement for medicinal marijuana expenses incurred to treat their work-related injuries. In both cases, the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the judge and declined to address the conflict of law between the Federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and Minnesota’s Medical Marijuana law (MCTRA), stating that the appeals court lacked the appropriate jurisdiction to address the conflict. 


The Supreme Court of Minnesota held in both cases that there was a conflict between the CSA and MCTRA, and reversed the underlying decisions directing reimbursement of medical marijuana to injured Minnesota workers. The court in the Bierbach case concluded that the Federal CSA statute pre-empted the MCTRA. The order directing reimbursement was reversed. The court in Musta vacated the order of the judge directing the medical marijuana reimbursement. That court based its decision on a conclusion that the requested reimbursement would cause the carrier to aid and abet illegal activity, paying for federally illegal drugs. The court stated that it was impossible to comply with both MCTRA and the CSA, and the Federal law preempts the MCTRA, state law. The court specifically stated, “we express no opinion on whether the CSA pre-empts any component of Minnesota’s medical cannabis program.” The court declined to address all three types of conflict preemption. A dissent was authored in both cases. 


In both dissents, the Justices found issue with how aiding and abetting a crime had been defined in the majority opinion. The dissent also noted that the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment has forbidden the U.S. Justice Department from using federal funds or resources to prosecute or interfere with state-level medical marijuana programs, since 2015. The Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment is a rider, passed by Congress, that has been attached to every federal spending bill since its passage, therefore reimbursing Minnesota’s injured workers for their medical marijuana expenses is not a crime so long as the parties use the official state medical marijuana system, so there is no crime that an insurance carrier could aid or abet by reimbursing the worker. 


The U.S. Supreme Court petition 


Early in 2022, the attorneys representing Musta and Bierbarch petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari. In February, the Supreme Court asked the Solicitor General to state his position on the question of the preemption. In a brief filed on May 16th, the Solicitor General urged the court to let the Minnesota decisions stand without review. The Office of the Solicitor General acknowledges that Congress has passed successive appropriations bills that prohibit the U.S. Justice Department from enforcing the federal law that bars possession of marijuana in states that have legalized it, but marijuana has not yet been removed from the controlled substances list and remains federally illegal. 


Insurance Coverage Law Center editor’s note: The decision maintains the split between federal and state marijuana policy. Since certiorari was denied, that indicates that fewer than four of the sitting Supreme Court justices believed that the legal challenges presented in the cases warranted consideration by the Supreme Court. This does not necessarily mean that a majority agrees with the lower court rulings in the disputes, however. 

By: Hannah Smith, JD, Insurance coverage Law Center