If you’re focused on cost-containment for your group health insurance plan, you clearly have a lot on your mind. Here’s another issue to consider: How might the legalization of marijuana affect your variables? Medicinal marijuana is currently legal in 23 States. It started with California in 1996, expanding most recently to New York, Minnesota and Maryland in 2014. Each State has its restrictions on how much marijuana an individual may possess, but in nearly half of the US, at least some amount is permissible.

Four States have gone further: in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, marijuana is legal for recreational use. And in California, there’s now an initiative on the ballot to legalize it there as well.

To legalize or not to legalize? Pros and cons

According to a public health analysis released this February by UCSF, the fact that marijuana is largely illegal carries serious negative social impacts. Its legalization could help relieve pressure on the overcrowded prison system and remove incentive for black-market sales.

Having pointed that out, however, UCSF pivoted to raise concerns. The health impacts of recreational marijuana are not incomparable to tobacco, it said. Using pot, and being exposed to its smoke secondhand, could potentially increase risks of:

  • Cancer
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Respiratory impairment
  • Long-lasting, detrimental changes in brain function
  • Addiction

In other words, the conclusion isn’t cut and dried. If marijuana carried a stigma like tobacco does – being legal, but generally frowned upon – the UCSF report authors would probably acknowledge its legalization as a good thing. But the initiatives in question “are written primarily to create a new business and only include minimal protections for the public that are unlikely to prevent public health harms caused by the burgeoning marijuana industry,” the report said.

That is, they encourage a new industry without also building a strong public health framework to educate new users about the health risks that marijuana brings – and ultimately, to discourage its use.

How will legalization impact your group health plan?

According to Health Benefits Pro, industry experts say marijuana is having very little effect on group health plans. Health insurance premium ratings factor in age, geography and tobacco use, but at this time alcohol and marijuana use are not rating factors so premiums have not changed. And, incidentally, marijuana is still illegal under federal law and not covered by any health insurance plans.

While consequences for group health plans are minimal, marijuana legalization does have many HR implications you should prepare for now. Keep in touch with our blog for updates as the story unfolds.

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