A workers’ compensation claim is how you can receive benefits if you’re injured at work. It’s intentionally broad—you can be compensated if you’re injured in any way while at work (even if it’s not work-related) or while engaged in a work-related duty someplace that’s not your specific worksite.
While workers’ compensation covers any injury—from a car accident to a slip and fall—one of the limitations is that the injury would not be covered if the injured worker was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time they were injured.
Georgia law specifies that an injured worker can be denied workers’ compensation benefits if the injury was caused by the use of alcohol or drugs unless the drug was legally prescribed by a physician.
The exception is that if the injury was unrelated to the impairment by drugs or alcohol, you might still be able to receive benefits.
So, how does legal medical marijuana use affect the outcome of a workers’ compensation claim?
Recreational cannabis (marijuana) use is illegal in Georgia. However, it’s decriminalized in some larger Georgia cities like Atlanta, Savannah and others. That means a first-time possession offense would be treated more like a minor traffic violation than a drug charge.
What are the medical marijuana laws in Georgia?
Georgia allows low-THC oil for some qualified people. If you are qualified, you may legally possess up to 20 fluid ounces of low-THC oil, which is derived from the marijuana plant.
You may apply for qualification to possess THC oil if you are:
- An adult who has a disease or condition specified in the law
- The legal guardian of an adult who has a disease or condition specified in the law
- The parent or legal guardian of a minor who has a disease or condition specified in the law
The Georgia Department of Public Health lists the affected diseases and conditions here. It’s worth noting that a physician is not permitted to prescribe medical marijuana in Georgia. If you have 1 of the qualifying diseases, you may apply to the state health department for eligibility.
Are there benefits to workers from using marijuana?
A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed an interesting finding: It showed that in states where recreational marijuana use is legal, there were fewer workers’ compensation claims and the benefit amounts were lower.
In other words —
It seems counterintuitive that this would be true, but the reason is that this form of pain management therapy prevents workers from becoming injured, and if they do become injured, the symptoms are less severe and result in less pain or discomfort.
The report also says that there was a decline in prescriptions for medications used to treat chronic pain in states where marijuana use is legal. In other words, the assessment is that people are using marijuana in place of traditional painkillers. The study finds that marijuana is being used to manage symptoms like chronic pain, insomnia, mental health issues, nausea and other ailments.
The study, which was partially funded by the federal government, breaks down statistics around recreational marijuana legalization and workers’ compensation. In adults between the ages of 40 and 62, the probability of receiving income from a workers’ compensation claim is 20 percent less after the legalization of marijuana than prior to the legalization.
Remember that although the study found benefits associated with marijuana use, recreational marijuana remains illegal in Georgia. Additionally, though some people in Georgia are permitted to use cannabis oil, the plant itself remains prohibited.
How does the legal use of THC oil affect a workers’ compensation claim?
Some states require workers’ compensation benefits to cover medical marijuana treatment when prescribed by a doctor. Georgia is not one of them, but that could change in the future.
So, what happens after a workers’ comp failed drug test?
Here’s where it stands in Georgia: If you become qualified to receive THC oil for a condition that results from a work-related injury, it can be covered by workers’ compensation insurance. However, the insurer is not required to cover that particular treatment if there’s an alternative available.
However, under Georgia law, workers’ compensation is not available to a worker who is under the influence of marijuana—meaning that if there is marijuana in their bloodstream within 8 hours of the accident, the presumption is that the ingestion of marijuana caused the accident. If you can demonstrate that you were legally permitted to use THC and that its use was not the cause of your accident or injury, it should not affect your claim.
Be aware that if your employer has a drug-free workplace policy, you could be violating it if you use THC, even if you’re legally permitted to do so. If you plan to apply or have applied to use THC for medicinal reasons, you should check with your employer before you use it to determine whether it could jeopardize your job standing.
There have been court cases in other states where it was found that an employer was liable for discrimination because of a zero-tolerance drug policy because of an employee who used medical marijuana. However, Georgia employment laws tend to favor the rights of the employer over the employee, and it’s still permissible under Georgia law for an employee of a zero-tolerance employer to be terminated for using marijuana, whether or not they are at work at the time.
Seeking the assistance of a workers’ compensation lawyer
The key takeaway is that these laws are evolving, but you still need to be cautious if you choose to use THC oil for medical reasons. Clearly, the new study, which shows that there are fewer workers’ compensation claims and lower payouts in states where marijuana is permitted, should encourage an employer to embrace an employee’s choice to use THC oil if eligible. But not every employer is informed or open to that information.
And, if you’re injured at work and have been using THC legally, you are still entitled to file a workers’ compensation claim. But these cases can be complex and might involve a higher level of negotiation than a typical workers’ compensation claim.