Widow Denied Benefits Because Husband Used Pot

By Kelly Burch 07/20/18

“I am 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.”

Concerned woman reading bad news in a letter sitting on a couch at home

The widow of a Colorado worker killed in a ski lift accident is being denied half of the workers' compensation benefits that she would normally be entitled to because her husband had THC in his system, despite the fact that recreational marijuana use is legal in the state. 

"I'm scared, and I have no idea how we are going to make it,” Erika Lee told The Denver Channel. "We don't know if we will get any money, so I'm just looking now at how to survive.”  

Lee’s husband Adam was working as an electrician at a ski area when he was killed on the job in December. A toxicology report showed that Adam had high levels of THC in his system. However, current testing is not able to say whether he was impaired at the time, or had just used marijuana recently. 

Still, Colorado state law allows employers to cut benefits by half if toxicology reports show drugs in a worker’s system at the time of death. This is true even for marijuana, which is legal to use for medical and recreational purposes in Colorado. Lee says that this means her family—including the couple’s children—will receive $800 less per month than they were expecting. 

“I am 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,” Lee said.

Even in states like Colorado where marijuana use is legalized, there continue to be grey areas in the policies around cannabis. This is especially true for workers, who have to follow their employer’s policy as well as state law.

In fact, workers can still be legally fired for using cannabis, even though it is legal in the state

“This is heartbreaking, and I think this should be a message to marijuana consumers in Colorado,” said Brian Vicente, a Colorado attorney who helped legalize marijuana in the state back in 2012. "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.”

Lee plans to appeal the reduction to her benefits. However, experts say that the ruling is currently in line with state law. 

“As it stands now, with a positive test result, an employer has the right to reduce those benefits," said John Sandberg, an administrative law judge with Colorado’s Department of Labor.  

Lee hopes that by sharing her story other people who use cannabis will be more aware of the potential risks. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.