The U.S. Supreme court has decided not to hear two workers’ compensation cases involving medical cannabis. By denying certiorari, the court essentially said that the majority of justices do not agree the legal merits of the case warrant action by the court. With the ruling, the lower court decisions in both cases stand.
The original cases were brought by two workers who requested worker’s compensation payments after being injured at work. Their employers refused to cover medical cannabis despite the fact that it is state-legal in Minnesota, where the cases originated. Minnesota’s State Supreme Court eventually ruled that the employers had the right to deny cannabis coverage because federal law preempts state law.
As an interesting side note, the DOJ had advised SCOTUS not to take the cases on the grounds that such matters are better left up to Congress. Does this mean that the DOJ is making plans for an eventual decriminalization bill? Not necessarily. It also doesn’t stand that SCOTUS agrees with Minnesota’s supreme court. The justices simply do not feel that the merits of the case warrant them hearing it.
What It Means
The Supreme Court’s decision is undoubtedly disappointing to medical cannabis supporters. It may even be disappointing to Minnesota lawmakers. But what does it mean, practically? It means that until Congress makes some sort of move on decimalization or rescheduling, the likelihood of the Supreme Court getting involved in any meaningful cannabis cases is slim.
Employers in Minnesota now have the green light to refuse medical cannabis coverage as part of worker’s compensation claims. You cannot blame them for doing so. Despite the national mood on medical cannabis, nothing changes the fact that cannabis is still illegal at the federal level. Employers need to be cognizant of that. They need to weigh their own risks and act accordingly.
The State Legal Question
Perhaps a more important issue is the question of state legality. Minnesota’s Supreme Court rule that federal law preempts state law. As long as the feds are acting within constitutional constraints, that ruling is correct on every count. Duly enacted and constitutionally sound federal laws always take precedence over state laws. What does that mean here?
It means that we can call medical cannabis ‘state-legal’ in Minnesota. We can discuss the fact that it is legal in Utah to visit the Deseret Wellness medical cannabis pharmacy in Park City and buy marijuana flower. We can talk about how anyone over the age of twenty-one can legally buy marijuana in Colorado. But state-legal status is meaningless. The only reason states are getting away with it is because Washington has declined to prosecute. All the cannabis activity around the country is still illegal.
Had the Supreme Court taken up the case and found in favor of the plaintiffs, it would have changed everything. Such a ruling would have limited the federal government’s ability to enforce drug laws based on intent. It would have flung the door wide open to federal decriminalization without an act of Congress.
Maintaining the Status Quo
By refusing to take the cases, SCOTUS has determined to maintain the status quo – at least for now. That may change at some point in the future. Until it does though, employers across the country have a little bit of extra assurance that they can continue to take positions against medical cannabis use among their workers.
The issue will have to be resolved at some point. That will not happen until Congress makes a move. They either need to decriminalize, reschedule, or compel federal law enforcement to get back to work.