Insights

Medical Marijuana: The Group Benefit Plan Impact

These days, few things are as controversial as marijuana. In the United States, 25 states and the District of Columbia have approved public medical marijuana programs. However, federal law still prohibits the use of marijuana, and the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance, along with other drugs including heroin and ecstasy. So what does this mean for group benefit plans?

Medicinal Uses

Medscape states that marijuana is highly effective at reducing pain in patients, including those with cancer, and a study has shown that it may also be effective in treating the symptoms of Parkinson disease. A Business Insider article lists 23 health benefits of marijuana, including its use in treating glaucoma, epileptic seizures, anxiety and cancer.

Furthermore, proponents of medicinal marijuana argue that it carries few risks, especially compared to other drugs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists the potential hazards, including decreased brain function in teenage users and dependence. However, a lethal overdose of marijuana is practically impossible, and a study in the Journal of American Medical Association shows that opiate overdose has dropped significantly in states that allow medical marijuana.

Finally, medical marijuana may be a cheaper alternative to more mainstream pharmaceuticals. Kaiser Health News reports that legalized medical marijuana has led to a drop in Medicare prescriptions and in spending by Medicare Part D.

Federal Law

Despite these finding, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not recognized any medicinal uses of marijuana, although it has approved two medications with cannabinoid chemicals, the same chemicals found in marijuana. Specifically, THC-based medications have been approved to increase appetite and reduce nausea. CBD cannabinoids are also being research for their ability to reduce pain, control seizures, and treat mental illness.

American Businesses

According to the Canna Law Group, no mainstream health insurance companies cover medical marijuana in the United States. Consumer-directed healthcare plans – including health savings accounts, health reimbursement accounts and flexible spending accounts – could theoretically be used to fund medical marijuana, but not without complications stemming from the fact that illegal substances are not considered a tax-deductible medical expense.

Additionally, many companies have their own policies prohibiting marijuana use. As Vice News reports, employees who are fired for medical marijuana use have no recourse because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and wrongful termination lawsuits have failed.

For now, inclusion of medical marijuana in group benefit plans is unlikely. However, if the trend toward legalized marijuana continues, this may change.  To stay on top of health care trending and breaking news, make sure to subscribe to the iTEDIUM newsletter.

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