Maine’s highest court ruled Thursday that a company’s workers’ compensation fund can’t be forced to pay for medical marijuana, citing the supremacy of federal law over state law as the basis for its decision.

The court, in a 5-2 vote, said the federal law that classifies marijuana as a controlled substance takes precedence over state law that allows marijuana to be used as medicine. But the court also said that the ruling was based on the “narrow circumstances” of the case before it, signaling that it wasn’t calling into question the legal underpinning of the state’s medical marijuana law.

In the case, a paper company employee wanted his employer’s workers’ compensation fund to pay for medical marijuana he used to treat pain from a back injury.

The worker, who had suffered a total disability, filed a claim six years ago to have the company, Twin Rivers Paper Co. in Madawaska, pay for his medical marijuana after his use of prescription painkillers provided him no relief and in some cases caused adverse side effects. The company refused, saying that the federal Controlled Substances Act barred it from paying for marijuana.

But the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board sided with the worker, Gaetan Bourgoin. The company began reimbursing Bourgoin for his medical marijuana costs, his lawyer said, but Twin Rivers also went to court to try to overturn the board ruling.

In its decision issued Thursday, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court indicated that it based its ruling primarily on the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says that in conflicts between state and federal laws, federal law should prevail. Two Maine supreme court justices dissented, saying they saw no conflict in the case.

A LENGTHY DISSENTING OPINION

Justice Joseph M. Jabar, seen hearing arguments last month, wrote in his dissent that he he sees no conflict between state and federal laws in the case of Gaetan Bourgoin. Staff photo by Joe Phelan

The court focused on the workers’ comp board ruling that would have required Twin Rivers to pay for Bourgoin’s medical marijuana. The court cited cases in other states that differentiated between exempting a patient from prosecution under state laws for the use of marijuana as a medicine and requiring employers to take steps that run afoul of federal laws on marijuana.

“A person’s right to use medical marijuana cannot be converted into a sword that would require another party, such as Twin Rivers, to engage in conduct that would violate the (Controlled Substances Act),” the Maine justices wrote.

Ordering an employer to reimburse an employee for the purchase of medical marijuana, the court said, essentially says an employer “is hereby required to commit a federal crime (as) defined by the Controlled Substances Act.”

That creates a conflict between state and federal law, the court said, and the U.S. Constitution says that in those cases, federal laws take precedence.

In a lengthy dissent, Justice Joseph M. Jabar said he sees no conflict between state and federal laws in the Bourgoin case. He said the case could be seen as Twin Rivers simply reimbursing an employee for medical costs, and the company wouldn’t have to be considered complicit in committing a federal crime just because Bourgoin and his doctor had determined that marijuana was the most effective treatment.

Justice Donald G. Alexander joined Jabar in the dissent and focused on the relief that medical marijuana had provided Bourgoin.

“The result of the court’s opinion today is to deprive Bourgoin of reimbursement for the medication that has finally given him relief from his chronic pain,” Alexander said, possibly forcing the man back to using opioids that hadn’t helped him “and may have placed Bourgoin’s life at risk.”

MIXED REACTIONS, CONSEQUENCES

Norman Trask, Bourgoin’s lawyer, said he and his client were disappointed by the ruling.

Trask had argued that Twin Rivers wasn’t being forced to commit a crime, it was simply complying with a lawful order of the workers’ comp board.

“Now many people will be foreclosed from getting pain relief, which is the real disappointment,” he said.

Trask said Bourgoin’s medical marijuana costs $400 a month, and that he will lose the reimbursement payments that Twin Rivers has been paying since the workers’ comp board ruled in his favor. Before using medical marijuana, doctors had put him on opioid painkillers that cost about six times more than the pot. He also got no pain relief and was feeling suicidal on the prescription medicine, court filings said.

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Scott Gagnon, the head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine, said the court decision is helpful because it clarifies the law for employers whose workers may be using medical marijuana.

The group opposes legal medical marijuana and was against the 2016 referendum that legalized recreational marijuana use in Maine.

Gagnon said the group favors more research on the possible beneficial uses of marijuana, but argues that should be done under carefully controlled guidelines.

Michael Bourque, president and chief executive officer of MEMIC, the region’s largest workers’ comp insurer, also said the court’s guidance on workers’ comp coverage for medical marijuana was needed.

However, he said the law that classifies marijuana as a drug on a par with cocaine needs to be looked at, and prohibitions on much of the research into the possible beneficial uses of marijuana should be lifted.

“I think we as a society should be open to thinking about that,” Bourque said.

Twin Rivers was self-insured on workers’ comp, Bourque said, and not a client of his mutual insurance company.

Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said the court’s ruling wasn’t surprising. But he said his organization has seen some cases go against employers in medical marijuana cases in recent years. Most of those cases, he said, involved employees who were fired for using medical marijuana. Until recently, he said, employers won almost all of those cases.

“There’s a greater acceptance of the idea that marijuana is a medicine” now, he said.

David Boyer, director of the Marijuana Policy Project’s Maine chapter, which led the successful referendum efforts to legalize both medical and recreational marijuana in Maine, agreed.

He said marijuana, for most people, offers an effective alternative to opioids, which are highly addictive. A court ruling that might limit the use of medical marijuana, he said, is a step backward.

“It should be considered a medicine,” he said, adding that for most people “it would be more effective and cheaper” than dangerous prescription drugs.

Anne-Marie Storey, the lawyer for Twin Rivers, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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