Maine Supreme Court hears landmark medical marijuana case

In an interview with WCSH6, Gaeton Bourgoin, a former employee of Twin Rivers paper mill who became addicted to opioids after sustaining a back injury in 1989, claims to find relief in the use of medical marijuana. Now, the highest court in Maine will be deciding on whether or not his cannabis medication should be covered by his worker’s compensation insurance.

“What a long strange trip it’s been,” said Bourgoins attorney, Norman Trask, of his client’s 25 year long search for a reprieve from his pain in an interview with WCSH6. According to Trask, Bourgoin was prescribed opioids shortly after his accident and quickly spiraled into crippling addiction. In 2014, after over two decades of opioid addiction, his doctor suggested he try medical marijuana.

“He was initially reluctant, he had never done it, he had some reservations. However, he was frankly desperate at that point,” said Trask, in an interview with WCSH6, “He’d been very sick, in pain, suicidal at times, and once he started using medical marijuana, it alleviated many of those symptoms, and he began to have somewhat of a functional life and a quality of life that he didn’t enjoy for the past 25 plus years.”

In 2015, an administrative law judge and the State Workers Compensation Board ordered the mills insurance company, Sedgwick Claims Management Services, to reimburse Bourgoin for the cost of his medication. Twin Rivers and Sedgwick appealed this decision, stating that since medical marijuana is illegal under federal law, they cannot be legally obligated to compensate Bourgoin for it.

While medical marijuana was technically legalized in Maine in 1999, there has been no decisive conclusion under either Maine or federal law that it actually serves a medical purpose. The attorney representing Twin Rivers, Anne-Marie Storey, argued that since doctors cannot officially prescribe cannabis as medication, it is left up to the patient to decide how much to take as well as the potency which creates a potentially dangerous situation they do not want to be held responsible for.

Despite his employers claiming cannabis is an illegal and irresponsible form of treatment, Bourgoin argues that it is cheaper and much less addictive than narcotics are, potentially costing the insurance company a mere $350 a month compared to the previous $1500 a month for narcotics.

“It is ironic,” said Trask of the drastic price difference. “Typically you see insurance companies arguing whatever they can to reduce costs.”

In court, Bourgoin also listed all the different medications he had tried before finding medical marijuana, including morphine, oxycodone, and fentanyl, all of which failed to relieve his pain. His struggles with these powerfully addictive drugs once left him hospitalized for suicidal thoughts, a point that was not lost on the judges.

“We have a human being here who has struggled mightily to overcome significant pain, is trying to walk away from opioid addiction and has found something that has improved his life,” said Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, in an interview with WCSH6. “Isn’t that something we should take into consideration?”

However, the issue of medical marijuana being considered illegal under federal law has hindered Bourgoins progress. Minutes into the opening of the case, Saufley questioned Bourgoin and his attorney as to how a company can ethically pay for a substance that is considered illegal.

“Suppose Mr. Bourgoin came to you and said ‘I have determined that the only thing that relieves my pain is daily ingestion of cocaine.’ You would not suggest that the workers’ compensation system support the employer’s payment for his purchase of cocaine, correct? And that’s because it’s illegal to have or purchase cocaine.”

While attorneys from both sides admitted they did not know of any case of an employer being prosecuted for reimbursement of an employee for medical marijuana costs, Storey noted that federal policies could change at any time, especially under President Trump, who has indicated he will take a harder stance on marijuana use than his predecessors.

Maine is one of five states — including Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New Mexico — that has required employers to reimburse injured workers for medical marijuana. However, the use of medical marijuana has been legalized in over 25 states, meaning that while this debate may be contained to Maine for now, it is one whose conclusion will hold repercussions for future debates in courthouses all over the country.

The Maine Supreme court is expected to arrive at a decision within a few months.