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Health Care Industry Cannot Ignore Cannabis Any Longer

By Robert T. Hoban, Esq.
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State legal protections and medical research should spur insurance companies to tackle cannabis.

Twenty-four U.S. states now have some form of medical marijuana legalization on the books. These states allow patients with a variety of qualifying conditions to possess and cultivate cannabis lawfully as a treatment for such medical conditions. The number of states allowing medical cannabis is set to increase dramatically, as various additional state legislatures have bills or ballot measures pending on this topic. You can read more about this topic here.

The federal government surprisingly already has their hands in medical marijuana. The federal government sends free, pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes to a special, albeit dwindling, group of patients on a regular basis and they have been doing so since 1976. This is a product of the 1976 federal Investigational New Drug Program (Compassionate Access I.N.D.), which still operates, but was closed in 1992 to any new patients. 

The U.S. Government holds a federal patent for therapeutic cannabinoid use (US6630507 B1). The patent, “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants,” (LINK) covers a method of treating diseases by applying a therapeutically effective amount of cannabinoids derived from marijuana. In addition, the White House website provides links to government-funded research projects involving medical marijuana. Presently, the links show 219 completed projects and 95 projects in progress.

On June 23, 2015, the American Medical Association adopted the formal position that marijuana is a form of medicine. Reliable scientific studies address the medical efficacy of the use of medical cannabis for an increasing number of conditions. Medical cannabis is here to stay and the health care industry needs to pay close attention.

 Simply put, the health care industry has been resistant to beginning the study of medical marijuana. This does not bode well for health care systems that will see more patients utilizing various forms of medical cannabis. Moreover, this is not a sustainable health care business model. With an increased focus on alternative forms of medicine and treatment both by practitioners and health care insurance providers, it is imperative that the health care industry studies the facts.

The New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Administration began requiring employers and insurers to reimburse injured workers for medical marijuana when the state’s health care provider fee schedule took effect January 1, 2016. Workers compensation claimants can be reimbursed up to $12.02 per gram of marijuana for up to 226.8 grams of marijuana per year, according to the fee schedule. Such reimbursements were ordered after the New Mexico Court of Appeals had ruled three times since May, 2014 that medical marijuana should be classified as reasonable and necessary medical care for injured workers.

The same momentum is impacting Latin America. Brazil’s governmental health care agency, ANVISA, recently removed a component of cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), from the list of banned substances, meaning the marijuana molecule can now be prescribed by physicians for treating seizures, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and other ailments. As such, ANVISA has approved the importation of CBD from the United States.

More and more research studies are published every year. In the National Center for Biotechnology Information database of biomedical literature, 4,516 medical abstracts reference both cannabis and cannabinoids. Still the vast majority of medical schools do not educate students about the human endocannabinoid system.

Denis Petro, a neurologist and pharmacologist, researches cannabis as a treatment for multiple sclerosis. He founded Patients Out of Time, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and education on the endocannabinoid system. “At present, conventional treatments for spasticity are unsatisfactory,” Dr. Petro wrote, in an article, Indications for Therapeutic Use of Cannabis. “Based on scientific evidence, cannabis is a safe and effective alternative when compared to conventional treatments.”

Physicians in Colorado can recommend marijuana and the Colorado Constitution legally protects them (Article XVII, Section 14). The Colorado Constitution gives physicians immunity for advising a patient about the risks and benefits of medical marijuana for a debilitating medical condition, and for recommending medical marijuana to a patient.

Moreover, physicians have a duty to care for their patients, and that includes considering medical marijuana if it would help that patient. Consequently, by understanding the health benefits and the particularized sources of liability, physicians can lend clarity to the medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana policy changes may lead to uncertainty, most questions about the marijuana industry, including the risks and its related legality, have answers. The problem is that health care providers and insurance companies do not know where to turn for this information.

I delivered a number of presentations concerning this topic to various provider and insurance-related entities across the country serving our health care system. It is evident that many of these health care related entities can move forward with a better understanding of the risk implications and devise better informed strategies to incorporate medical cannabis into their operational plans, whether for now or in the near future.

An understanding of the researched health benefits of medical marijuana is increasingly necessary for physicians and other members of our health care system. A conservative approach is certainly advisable, but it is more than just a good thing to learn about; it is a necessity in this day and age to remain relevant and informed. This needs to happen now. And the providers that take appropriate steps soon will be better positioned to deal with these issues as they become increasingly prevalent.

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