Two Canadian life insurance companies, Sun Life and BMO Insurance, have agreed to classify marijuana users as non-smokers. What exactly does this mean for their customers? It means they can stop worrying their life insurance premiums will spike due to their smoking habits. This is true whether they're medicinal or recreational users.
This is big news for Canadian cannabis smokers. After all, according to a recent article in the National Post, non-smokers there tend to pay $95 less a month for life insurance than smokers, all other things being equal. That's over $1,000 saved a year.
But not all life insurance policies treat the matter equally. For instance, BMO Insurance's new policy applies to consumers who smoke two or less marijuana cigarettes a week. On the other hand, Sun Life's non-smoker label will benefit anyone who smokes marijuana but not tobacco. There are no restrictions on how often you smoke.
Health Insurance Breakthrough
These changes come after another major breakthrough for cannabis medicinal users. Last year, Sun Life gave college student Jonathan Zaid health coverage for medical marijuana.
Still, it was an uphill battle for Zaid, who suffers from a syndrome called New Daily Persistent Headache. This causes daily headaches similar to migraines that prevent Zaid from getting enough sleep.
After trying multiple treatments, he found marijuana was the only thing that helped. He initially wasn’t able to get his health claim reimbursed. This was largely because marijuana has no drug identification number (DIN). But after meeting with a committee at his school, he argued his case using medical evidence. He also brought proof of previous medications he had tried without success. After the meeting, he was awarded coverage.
But although Zaid now has coverage, the same doesn't apply for all Sun Life customers. That’s because cannabis' lack of a DIN is still a problem.
“Currently medical marijuana is not considered an eligible benefit in our standard drugs plans. We do consider, and where possible, accommodate requests for exceptions if directed by the plan sponsors," said Sun Life in an article last year from Huffington Post Canada.
Still, the possibility that Canadian insurance companies will cover medical marijuana routinely is becoming increasingly likely.
The Globe and Mail reported last July that some insurers might allow coverage if an employer specifically said an employee needed marijuana. And just this week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reinforced his view that legalizing marijuana was at the top of his agenda.
“The reason why legalizing marijuana is the right step for us is because of two things: One, it will be make it harder for young people to access marijuana…Right now, young people have easy access. Controlling and regulating it will make it more difficult for them," Trudeau said. "Two, we need to remove the criminal element—streets gangs, the organized crime—from the sale of marijuana. Regulating it and controlling it will do that."
What Does This Mean for the US?
As our neighbors to the north make progressive changes to their insurance policies, some may wonder whether the US will soon follow suit. After all, marijuana use here is becoming increasingly common. Twenty-five states as well as the District of Columbia already have legalized marijuana in some way.
Still, currently some life insurance companies put users in the same category as tobacco smokers. This holds true even if they use cannabis for medical reasons. Certain life insurers may let it slide if you only smoke occasionally. Others may refuse to give you coverage altogether.
"My hunch is that they would try to charge cannabis smokers like they charge tobacco smokers," says Michael Liszewski, director of government affairs at Americans for Safe Access. "After all, if they can collect higher premiums, why wouldn't they?"
But Liszewski notes that insurance companies might treat cannabis-only smokers as non-smokers to increase their customer base.
Luckily, if your rates do end up off the charts, you can save on life insurance by shopping around. Your insurance provider may penalize you heavily for using cannabis. But that doesn't mean another insurer will charge you the same high rates.
Unfortunately for medical marijuana users, it looks like they'll be left to foot the bill for the foreseeable future. A heavy burden when you consider costs can be up to $1,000 a month.
Liszewski explains that cannabis users have two major roadblocks standing in their way before health insurers would consider covering the product. "The only way that [coverage] would seem possible is if there is a major change in federal law regarding medical cannabis regarding penalties, and cannabis is moved out of Schedule I of the US Controlled Substances Act.”
Why does the Schedule I classification matter? By being lumped into that category, marijuana is placed in the same group as substances like heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Schedule I drugs have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."
On top of that, marijuana isn't approved by the FDA. And its Schedule I status makes studying its effects and creating a clinical trial almost impossible.
Will US insurance companies pay for medical marijuana if we solve these issues? Maybe, maybe not. But at least some of them have to be tackled if it’s to be a possibility.
"Fighting for insurance coverage will still be a challenge for patients,” Liszewski says. “But we can't fight that battle until after we ended the federal prohibition of medical cannabis.”