Is your weed covered?

January 28, 2013

Valerie Vande Panne, The Phoenix

"For MassHealth the answer is 'No,' " Alec Loftus, communications director at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, tells the Phoenix. "Nothing in the 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."

So MassHealth won't cover it. Will other insurance plans? "We have had reports of patients being reimbursed by their health-insurance companies," says Kris Hermes, spokesperson with Americans for Safe Access. "But it's very rare. I don't want to give the impression that insurance companies are regularly reimbursing customers, because that's just not the case. Most insurance companies would balk at the idea."

Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance's California office, says that patients in California can have their medical-marijuana expenses apply toward their Medi-Cal deductible — but they can't have the expenses reimbursed.

The solution for many patients in California is "compassion programs" that supply free- or low-cost medical marijuana to patients who can prove they are low-income. The dispensaries, says Reiman, "know a lot of patients who are severely ill have [large medical bills] and are not working. It's just a part of the dispensaries that take a community approach" to their operating model.

Rhode Island has a similar program, says JoAnne Leppanen, executive director of Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition (ripatients.org). In fact, giving medical marijuana to the sick and poor is actually written into their law. The giver must be a state-licensed caregiver or patient, giving medical marijuana free of charge to another state-licensed caregiver or patient. Requiring insurance companies to cover medical marijuana is not written into the Rhode Island law.

Should patients ask their insurance companies to cover their medical marijuana? "I know for myself . . . for a lot of people, it's daunting to deal with their insurance company. But if it's something they feel they can pursue, it's cases that set precedent," says Reiman.

Hermes has a different view: "I might suggest patients inquire about reimbursements, but there is also a risk to that. One example is the Veteran's Affairs (VA) system, which frequently frowns on medical-marijuana use. . . . People in the VA system have been discriminated against and denied other treatments, because of their medical-marijuana-patient status."

"The risks and benefits should be weighed prior to contacting your insurance company about reimbursement," says Hermes.

Can I share my medical marijuana?
- COMMUNAL IN CAMBRIDGE

"No," says John Seed, former prosecutor turned criminal-defense attorney at the Allston law firm Krefetz and Seed. "It'd be the same as sharing your prescription OxyContin. You are the person being [given the medical-marijuana recommendation], and so you are the only one who can possess and use that marijuana."

Practically speaking, though, he adds, "Who would know?"

Attorney Steve Epstein says that "If we're both caretakers, and we're both patients, and we're both each other's caretakers, then we can exchange weed."

Additionally, both Epstein and Seed stressed the importance of obeying all laws and being polite to police officers. They are seeing too many cases of people sharing pot in public parks after dark or in a car parked in a no-parking zone (say, in front of a fire hydrant). In other words, the pot defendants they're seeing were busted incidentally for other petty crimes.

"A lot of the case law I'm using now is wrapped around the fact that marijuana is becoming less and less illegal," says Seed. "Many marijuana cases now are possession with intent [to distribute] or straight distribution."

"Marijuana is taken in a different light now, because of the voters in Massachusetts," says Seed. "It's different from cocaine and heroin. The general public views it different."

Recreationally, though, the court will rule later this spring on the case Commonwealth v. Pacheco, which will determine whether sharing a non-criminal amount of marijuana (for example, by sharing a joint) constitutes unlawful distribution or if it's cause for further search of the person's property.



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