A pair of recent Maine Workers’ Compensation Board decisions pose an interesting legal question and apparently provide Maine with an opportunity to set a judicial precedent for the rest of the country. Bourgoin v. Twin Rivers Paper Co., LLC and Noll v. Lepage Bakeries are decisions on appeal from administrative decisions that ordered employers’ insurance companies to pay for injured employees’ medical marijuana costs. The main issue on appeal was whether it was legal for the Workers’ Compensation Board to order the employers and insurance companies to pay for these costs, given that marijuana (or cannabis) remains illegal under federal law. A few other legal questions were raised, too, but the appeal mostly argued that these unusual administrative orders, in effect, compelled the companies to break the law.

In the complex decisions the Appellate Division—which consists of the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) who decide most workers’ compensation cases in Maine—explained why the Board has the authority to order such payments and why the use of marijuana, when prescribed by doctors as a medically appropriate way to treat chronic pain and other symptoms of serious work-related injuries, constitutes “reasonable and proper” treatment. In short, it is extremely unlikely that these employers or their insurance companies will ever face criminal prosecution for such payments, and the medical histories of these injured workers provide vivid examples of cannabis use as an alternative to the heavy medications so often used to treat chronic pain.

I think the insurance companies probably will appeal these decisions to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, and the ALJs indicated that no state supreme court—and only one state appeals court, in New Mexico—has ever ruled that medical marijuana use constituted proper medical care under workers’ compensation law. Therefore, Maine’s highest court has the rare opportunity to establish a precedent that may be followed by other states. Despite all of the jokes about “potheads” that this may inspire, ample evidence supports medical cannabis as a useful alternative to the expensive, addictive, and sometimes deadly prescription drugs that severely injured workers so often must take to alleviate their suffering.