Recreational cannabis use has been legal in Colorado since 2012, but some individuals who are choosing to avail themselves of this new freedom have been unwittingly putting their families at risk. This very situation just played out for the family of Adam Lee, an electrician at a Denver-area ski resort who was crushed to death while repairing a ski escalator last December. An autopsy found that Lee had high levels of THC in his system at the time of his death, and state officials used this fact to deny his widow Erika and their children half of the standard workers' compensation benefits.
Even though cannabis use is completely legal for adults in the state, state law allows workers' compensation groups to cut benefits by 50% if blood tests return positive for cannabis or other drugs. "As it stands now, with a positive test result, an employer has the right to reduce those benefits," John Sandberg, an administrative law judge with Colorado's Department of Labor, said to ABC affiliate Contact7. Sandberg acknowledged the disconnect between this law and the legality of cannabis in the state, and added that the issue is "one that probably needs to be brought to the General Assembly in terms of how this impacts workers."
"I'm scared, and I have no idea how we are going to make it," Erika said to Contact7. "We don't know if we will get any money, so I'm just looking now at how to survive." Lee told reporters that she was "frustrated with the system that is saying because he smoked a legal substance, we are going to take away your benefits from you and your kids."
If a worker was injured or killed while intoxicated by another drug, like alcohol or opioids, the situation would be more cut and dry. An autopsy can reveal with great certainty whether an individual was intoxicated by most drugs at the time of their death, but the same certainty cannot be determined for cannabis. Marijuana can remain in the system for weeks after use, and the fact that Lee had high levels of THC in his system does not conclusively indicate that he was stoned at the time of his death.
"This is heartbreaking, and I think this should be a message to marijuana consumers in Colorado," Colorado attorney and cannabis advocate Brian Vicente said. "We voters spoke loudly and said marijuana should not be illegal for adults. Yet we still have some parts of the Colorado revised statutes that appear to penalize people who are using this substance."
Colorado is not the only place to see insurance companies using marijuana as an excuse to refuse customers or deny payments. In Hawaii, the state's biggest workers' compensation insurance firm cut its ties with all of the state's perfectly legal medical marijuana businesses last summer. And in Canada, where recreational weed will be completely legal as of this fall, insurance companies have been denying homeowners' insurance to individuals who are legally growing medical marijuana.
Cannabis is still entirely prohibited by U.S. federal law, and major insurance companies are choosing to follow the lead of the financial industry and stay clear of the cannabis industry altogether. This has had tragic results for pot farmers who lost their businesses during the California wildfires last year, as their claims were denied due to their association with a federally-prohibited drug. Recreational pot users are also getting hit hard by life insurance companies, some of which are quoting rates to cannabis consumers that are as much as five times higher than those quoted to non-users.