More than a dozen states allow their residents to smoke marijuana if they've been diagnosed with certain health conditions. Even so, major health insurers don't treat it like a prescription drug and won't pay for patients to buy it.
Marijuana is cleared for medical use in 15 states -- including Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan and New Jersey -- and the District of Columbia. As of April 2011, there were 10 states with pending legislation that would legalize medical marijuana, including Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina.
Still, not one major health insurer covers medical marijuana -- and there's no indication that it will happen anytime soon. That's because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not given its seal of approval to medical marijuana. Why? The federal government still categorizes marijuana as a controlled substance.
“The federal classification on marijuana must change before we will see any change in the policies of health insurance providers,” says Dan Kingston, an Arizona activist who supports medical marijuana.
In fact, if a patient acknowledges use of medical marijuana on an application for private health insurance, he'll automatically be declined even though use of the pot is covered by state law, according to Alexandra Eidenberg, president of The Insurance People, an insurance agency in Chicago.
“Marijuana usage, legal or not, is a taboo issue, so it is unlikely that any carrier will take the lead on covering it out of concern for hurting their image and losing clients,” Eidenberg says. “Everyone is apprehensive, because the people with the most money and clout are mostly conservative and not in favor of this.”
Advocates say medical marijuana can help safely and effectively treat conditions like cancer, glaucoma, HIV and dementia. Hundreds of thousands of Americans smoke medical marijuana. NORML, a pro-marijuana lobbying group, points out that organizations like the American Public Health Association and the Federation of American Scientists have endorsed medical marijuana.
A Harris Poll conducted in February 2011 found that nearly three-fourths of American adults support the legalization of medical marijuana in their own states. "For many seriously ill people, medical marijuana is the only medicine that relieves their pain and suffering, or treats symptoms of their medical condition, without debilitating side effects," the Drug Policy Alliance says.
Meanwhile, organizations like the American Cancer Society, American Glaucoma Society and National Multiple Sclerosis Society have raised health concerns about medical marijuana. Opponents claim that medical marijuana is merely a façade for efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and argue that plenty of regular prescription drugs are available as an alternative.
In 2010, Dr. Ed Gogek, a medical marijuana opponent in Arizona, said: “The demand for medical marijuana is not coming from doctors or patient care organizations. It’s coming entirely from pot smokers."
Sara Jane, CEO of Sara Jane & Co., a medical marijuana cooperative in Sacramento, Calif., uses medical marijuana -- also known as medicinal cannabis -- to treat anxiety, stress and insomnia. She has tried other medications for her post-traumatic stress disorder but says the side effects were “horrible.”
“When I started using medicinal marijuana, my sleeping problems were gone in a week,” Jane says.
Jane says it's frustrating that health insurance isn't available to medical marijuana patients. “If I have health insurance, I can go and buy something at the pharmacy and it’s a $5 co-pay, whereas for cannabis, you’re spending $45 a week on it,” she says.
Mike Aberle is national director of Statewide Insurance Services' MMD Insurance Group in Sacramento, Calif., which sells business insurance policies for the medical marijuana industry. He says medical marijuana "is very similar to commercial general liability insurance 10 years ago. It was new and something that hadn’t been developed yet, and I’m sure in the future some form of insurance will cover medical marijuana patients.”
Montana House Speaker Mike Milburn doesn't want to see that day come. Milburn sponsored a bill during the 2011 legislative session aimed at repealing the state's medical marijuana law. Legislators passed Milburn's bill, but Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed it.
Milburn believes Montana's "out of control" medical marijuana industry should be shut down.
"It's no longer an issue of medical marijuana. It's an issue of marijuana," Milburn said at a legislative hearing in February 2011. "We've opened the floodgates. It's like Hurricane Katrina. We're not talking about the dikes holding back the water anymore. We're talking about, 'How do you rebuild the city?'"