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[HR] Medical Marijuana Developments: The Next Employee Health Benefit?

The winds of change are blowing through Canada, and they smell like Marijuana – Medical Marijuana that is. It was inevitable, with the tabling of Marijuana legalization legislation in 2017 by the federal government (Bill C-45, or the Cannabis Act, is now at its second reading in the Senate as of January 2018), the granting of growing and distribution licenses to various established growers and new entrants, the various provinces creating and rolling out tentative new plans and policies with regard to stocking, pricing and distribution networks, with pharmaceutical companies investing significant amounts of money in creating synthetic versions of the active ingredient so it can be marketed in pill form, and pharmacies like Shoppers Drug Mart applying for a distribution license in 2016.

The latest development in the ongoing saga of medical marijuana in Canada, is that Sun Life has just announced that it will include medical cannabis as optional coverage under an extended health-care benefit plan as of March 1, 2018.

The Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR SOR/2016-230, s. 281) passed in June of 2013, and was amended in 2016, creating a for-profit commercial structure for medical cannabis producers and retailers. These regulations also ensure that any sick Canadian in need of treatment can access cannabis that’s been grown in a safe and sterile environment. Here’s the only issue: while the vast majority of prescription medications are fully covered under Health Canada, cannabis is not one of those drugs.

In as early as 2015, an Ontario university student established a precedent that has paved the way for coverage of medical marijuana by private insurance plans in Canada. However, marijuana doesn’t yet have a Drug Identification Number (DIN), which is the industry standard usually required before a pharmaceutical is authorized for sale and reimbursement. This lack of a DIN is a sticking point for doctors, many of whom are reluctant to sign medical documents for patients who make a case for medical marijuana.

In April 2017, Canadian retail giant Loblaw had started covering medical marijuana for employees through their health benefit plans. Not surprising at all considering that the company’s Shoppers Drug Mart division had applied to Health Canada for the license to sell medical marijuana, in October 2016. In January 2018, subject to Health Canada’s approval of this license, Nanaimo, BC based licensed marijuana producer Tilray Canada Ltd. has signed a deal to become a medical cannabis supplier to Shoppers Drug Mart.

A small, but growing number of other self-insured Canadian health benefit plans already cover medical marijuana in certain circumstances. In May 2017, Windsor, ON. union LIUNA Local 625 started covering medical marijuana as a way to reduce opioid use among members. Earlier in 2017, a Nova Scotia human rights board said the Canadian Elevator Industry Welfare Trust Plan had to cover medical marijuana expenses for an employee, although that plan’s board of trustees is appealing the decision. Veterans Affairs Canada also reimburses a growing number of military veterans for medical cannabis.

Just recently, in February 2018, an American tobacco leaf merchant has acquired majority stakes in a P.E.I. licensed medical marijuana producer as well as a cannabis company that is developing indoor growing operations in Ontario. This follows a similar move by another American company in October 2017, with Corona beer maker Constellation Brands clinching a deal to acquire a nearly 10 per cent stake in licensed medical marijuana producer Canopy Growth Corp. from Smith Falls, ON, Canada.

It is clear that employers are hearing it from their employees, more than ever now – “When will it become a benefit?” and paying for employees’ medical marijuana prescriptions raises a host of complex questions, especially in safety-sensitive industries like manufacturing, heavy machinery, resource extraction or construction. But it’s important to note that workers in those industries are already using other employer-covered drugs that are high risk like opiates and benzodiazepines. Overall, while there’s definitely a hesitance by some organizations of being the first out of the gate to offer medical marijuana as a benefit for employees or as a coverage option, with the writing on the wall, and the tide rising, can industry players afford to be the last out of the gate to offer this benefit or coverage to their employees?