Lack of Insurance Coverage for Medical Marijuana Can Leave Some Users Behind

Photo of marijuana spilling out of a medicine container

As a disabled New Yorker that relies on medical marijuana for pain control, I was so happy to hear that Gov. Cuomo recently signed a bill that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana. It would also crucially allow some victims of the drug war – who are disproportionately people of color – to have their records expunged. As more states continue to decriminalize and legalize marijuana, I am getting increasingly worried that we are once again leaving disabled people behind by not fighting for marijuana used for medical purposes to be covered by insurance.

Before this law, New York had only legalized medical marijuana for people with certain conditions, including chronic pain. So, both fortunately and unfortunately for me, I have chronic pain caused by both fibromyalgia and an autoimmune connective tissue disease. After paying several hundred dollars to doctors and the state, I was able to legally buy marijuana at one of the licensed dispensaries in the state.

I’m going to be honest here, I had smoked plenty of weed before I had a prescription. But I didn’t love it and it often made me paranoid. I went many years without smoking, so I didn’t think to try it when I first got sick. However, once I could get cannabis in known dosages and specific strains, I could take small doses that were high in the anti-inflammatory aspects (no pun intended). It changed my life! Up to this point I would spend many evenings sobbing in pain, but the marijuana was able to take enough of the edge off to keep me comfortable.

I could go on about the ways that cannabis has positively impacted my health: without marijuana I would need to rely on more dangerous methods of pain control. I also would be mostly unable to eat as some of my medications make me nauseated. While it’s not a miracle drug like some people claim, the quality of my life greatly increased after I started taking medical marijuana (usually in capsule form). The problem? It’s ridiculously expensive and insurance doesn’t cover it.

Obviously, some state governments understand that cannabis has a legitimate place in medical care as that’s the reasoning behind allowing and creating medical marijuana programs. Yet no major health insurance plans cover it. That means that only people who are wealthy enough to afford to pay out of pocket are able to access to medicinal benefits of the drug. Individuals differ, but I’m pretty sick, so I need spend about $500 a month on medicinal marijuana to keep my pain at a baseline level.

Keep in mind these same insurance policies cover opiates and other medications that may be more expensive, dangerous, and/or less effective than marijuana. I also want to be crystal clear that advocacy for insurance coverage of medical marijuana should in no way detract or take away any resources from the fight to decarcerate people with marijuana convictions, expunge records, and otherwise tear down the prison industrial complex. It’s important to note that because of the way that disability and trauma work, the same people most at risk for incarceration may also those that are most at risk of having chronic pain, and therefore perhaps benefiting from medical cannabis.

I don’t think I would be as angry about this if it weren’t for the way that abled marijuana activists used disabled people to open the door to legalization of recreational weed through medical marijuana programs. As a lawyer and longtime activist, believe me when I say that I understand that there are hurdles to making insurance coverage of cannabis a reality (especially under public insurance like Medicaid). However, it’s still important that we work towards all people having access to the medications and treatments that work best for them.


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Katie Tastrom is a disability lawyer, writer, and activist. Her work has appeared at Slate, NBC News, Ravishly, and others. She writes frequently about living with chronic illness. You can find more of her work at katietastrom.com.

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