Injured workers caught in the crossfire of state vs. federal law

Oct 04 2017

Of all prominent personalities quoted before any court, Jerry Garcia is rarely referenced.

Yet, in his opening remarks, Norman Trask, an attorney appearing before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, cited the Grateful Dead leader’s own words that also served as the title of the band’s second compilation album.

“What a long strange trip it’s been.”

For Gaetan Bourgoin, it has been a long and painful trip.

Bourgoin injured his back in 1989 at the paper mill in Maine where he worked. He initially tried prescription painkillers. While providing relief, use of the drug led to addiction and thoughts of suicide. With medical marijuana being legal in the state, the 58-year-old machine operator turned the more manageable cure for what ailed him.

Maine’s workers’ compensation board ruled for Bourgoin, ordering Twin Rivers Paper Co. to pay the $350 in monthly expenses. That amount is a far cry from the original $1,500 needed per month for opioids.

His employer appealed the decision, arguing that covering those costs would violate federal law.

The landmark case now before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court goes beyond Bourgoin versus Twin Rivers. The legal battle also pits state versus federal law. The crux of the argument involves mandating payment for medical cannabis, currently a federally illegal narcotic, as opposed to using a highly addictive opioid to manage pain.

The only common ground from both sides so far is admitting that no case seems to exist where federal authorities prosecuted an employer or insurer for reimbursing medical marijuana costs. Still, the attorney representing Twin Rivers argued that overturning the board’s ruling was necessary based on indicators from the Trump administration taking a stronger anti-marijuana stance.

Maine is one of five states that both legalized medical marijuana and mandated employers to cover prescription costs for injured workers in spite of federal criminal laws. The other states include Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey and New Mexico.