In re Wright, SJC-12873

CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
Writing for the CourtKAFKER, J.
Citation486 Mass. 98,156 N.E.3d 161
Parties Daniel WRIGHT'S CASE.
Docket NumberSJC-12873
Decision Date27 October 2020

486 Mass. 98
156 N.E.3d 161



Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk..

Argued May 5, 2020
Decided October 27, 2020

Katherine L. Lamondia-Wrinkle, Springfield, for the claimant.

Leonard Y. Nason, Bedford (James E. Ramsey, Worcester, also present) for the insurer.

Wystan M. Ackerman, for American Property Casualty Insurance Association, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

Matthew J. Walko, Boston & Pauline A. Jauquet, Lincoln, for Mass General Brigham Incorporated, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.1


486 Mass. 98
156 N.E.3d 165

In the instant case we are asked to determine whether an insurance company may be ordered to reimburse an employee for medical marijuana expenses pursuant to a general provision

486 Mass. 99

of the Massachusetts workers' compensation scheme that requires reimbursement of necessary and reasonable medical expenses. The claimant, Daniel Wright, sought compensation for $24,267.86 of medical marijuana expenses to treat chronic pain stemming from two work-related injuries he sustained in 2010 and 2012. His claim was denied by an administrative judge, and the denial was affirmed on appeal by the reviewing board of the Department of Industrial Accidents (department). The reviewing board concluded that marijuana's status as a federally illicit substance preempted any State level authority to order a workers' compensation insurer to pay for Wright's medical marijuana expenses. We likewise conclude that the workers' compensation insurer cannot be required to pay for medical marijuana expenses, but do so based on the medical marijuana act itself.

We recognize that the current legal landscape of medical marijuana law may, at best, be described as a hazy thicket. Marijuana is illegal at the Federal level and has been deemed under Federal law to have no medicinal purposes, but Massachusetts, as well as the majority of States, have legalized medical marijuana and created regulatory schemes for its administration and usage. Complicating and confusing matters further, Congress has placed budgetary restrictions on the ability of the United States Department of Justice to prosecute individuals for marijuana usage in compliance with a State medical marijuana scheme, and the Department of Justice has issued, revised, and revoked memoranda explaining its marijuana enforcement practices and priorities, leaving in place no clear guidance.

The Commonwealth's original medical marijuana act, St. 2012, c. 369 (act or medical marijuana act), was carefully drafted by its sponsors to take into account this most difficult regulatory environment, with provisions specifically designed to avoid possible conflicts with the Federal government. One such provision of the law expressly states that "[n]othing in this law requires any health insurance provider, or any government agency or authority, to reimburse any person for the expenses of the medical use of marijuana." St. 2012, c. 369, § 7 (B). See G. L. c. 94I, § 6 (i). This provision recognizes that when medical marijuana patients seek to recover the costs of such use from third parties, including insurance companies engaged in interstate commerce, the regulatory environment becomes even more problematic. Under the plain language of this provision, those insurers are not required to reimburse medical marijuana expenses for a substance that remains

486 Mass. 100

illegal under Federal law. We conclude that this specific language, and the Federal concerns it seeks to address and avoid, is controlling and not overridden by the general language in the workers' compensation laws requiring workers' compensation insurers to reimburse for reasonable medical expenses. A contrary reading of this specific language, which states that health insurers and government agencies and authorities

156 N.E.3d 166

are not required to reimburse medical marijuana expenses, would have been completely misleading to those who voted on it. It is one thing for a State statute to authorize those who want to use medical marijuana, or provide a patient with a written certification for medical marijuana, to do so and assume the potential risk of Federal prosecution; it is quite another for it to require unwilling third parties to pay for such use and risk such prosecution. The drafters of the medical marijuana law recognized and respected this distinction.2

1. Background. a. Federal statutory landscape. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) provides the relevant Federal legislative backdrop against which the current litigation stands. Passed in 1970, the CSA creates a "closed regulatory system making it unlawful to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess any controlled substance except in a manner authorized by the CSA." Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 10, 13, 125 S.Ct. 2195, 162 L.Ed.2d 1 (2005) ( Raich ). The CSA sets forth five schedules to classify and regulate the use of controlled substances. Id. at 13, 125 S.Ct. 2195. "The drugs are grouped together based on their accepted medical uses, the potential for abuse, and their psychological and physical effects on the body." Id. "Schedule I contains the most severe restrictions on access and use, and [s]chedule V the least." Gonzales v. Oregon, 546 U.S. 243, 250, 126 S.Ct. 904, 163 L.Ed.2d 748 (2006). Marijuana is classified under schedule I.3 See 21 U.S.C. § 812(c). Pursuant to its schedule I classification, marijuana is deemed to have (1) a high potential for abuse; (2) no currently accepted medical use in the United States; and (3) a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. 21 U.S.C. § 812(b)(1). See United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop., 532 U.S. 483, 493, 121 S.Ct. 1711, 149 L.Ed.2d 722 (2001) ("Congress has made a determination

486 Mass. 101

that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception"). Accordingly, as a schedule I drug, marijuana may not be prescribed. See id. at 491, 121 S.Ct. 1711. The United States Supreme Court has also rejected the contention that the CSA includes an implicit necessity defense for the manufacture and distribution of schedule I drugs on the basis of medical need. Id. at 494, 121 S.Ct. 1711.

The consequences of marijuana's status as a schedule I drug are significant. With one exception not relevant here,4 the manufacture, distribution, or possession of a schedule I substance is a Federal offense. See 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 844(a). See also Raich, 545 U.S. at 14, 125 S.Ct. 2195. An individual found in possession of a schedule I substance may be sentenced to one year of imprisonment, a fine of at least $1,000, or both. See 21 U.S.C. § 844(a). The same penalties also apply to anyone who "attempts or conspires to commit" such an offense. See 21 U.S.C. § 846. Additionally, an individual who "aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures" the commission of a Federal offense, including a violation of the CSA,

156 N.E.3d 167

may be subject to the same penalties as the principal. See 18 U.S.C. § 2(a). Thus, it is a Federal crime not only to possess marijuana, but also to conspire to do so or to aid or abet the possession of marijuana. Accordingly, regardless of the legal status of marijuana at the State level, marijuana users, and those who aid or abet the distribution or possession of marijuana, "remain[ ] potentially subject to Federal criminal prosecution." Barbuto v. Advantage Sales & Mktg., LLC, 477 Mass. 456, 460, 78 N.E.3d 37 (2017).

b. Massachusetts medical marijuana law. In 2012, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes in the Commonwealth. See St. 2012, c. 369.5 The stated purpose of the act provides that "there should be no punishment under state law for qualifying patients, physicians and health care professionals, personal caregivers for

486 Mass. 102

patients, or medical marijuana treatment center agents for the medical use of marijuana, as defined herein." See St. 2012, c. 369, § 1. The act first sets out "the parameters of protection from State prosecution and penalties that the act respectively gives to physicians and health care professionals, qualifying patients and their personal caregivers, and licensed dispensary agents." Commonwealth v. Canning, 471 Mass. 341, 345, 28 N.E.3d 1156 (2015). Pursuant to the act, "[a]ny person meeting the requirements under this law shall not be penalized under Massachusetts law in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, for such actions." St. 2012, c. 369, § 4. See G. L. c. 94I, § 2. See also G. L. c. 94G, § 7. Further, "[a] qualifying patient or a personal caregiver shall not be subject to arrest or prosecution, or civil penalty, for the medical use of marijuana," provided he or she meets the requirements of the law. St. 2012, c. 369, § 4. See G. L. c. 94I, § 2. See also G. L. c. 94G, § 7. Additionally, "[t]he lawful...

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