Colorado widow battling late husband's insurance company over marijuana

DENVER – A Colorado widow is battling her late husband's insurance company because it decided to cut his worker compensation over marijuana. Adam Lee died in December while working at a Colorado ski mountain. The insurance company reduced his worker compensation when it learned he had pot in his system at the time of his death. Colorado is one of nine states and the District of Columbia that allows recreational marijuana use.

Erika Lee said the last call she had with her husband was just like any other. 
 
"Two minutes later, I felt something rip out of my stomach and I couldn't understand why I couldn't stand up," Lee told CBS News correspondent Barry Petersen. She said she felt the moment he died.

The 40-year-old father of three got caught underneath a conveyor belt at the Colorado ski resort where he worked as a lift mechanic and died from chest injuries.

"I go to work one day and he goes to work one day… all of a sudden, you know, he doesn't come home," Lee said.

In May, Lee learned she'd receive $800 a month for Adam's workman's compensation – about half of what she expected. Pinnacol Assurance, the workers comp insurance company, reduced the payments because Adam had marijuana in his system when he died.

"How far does that go when you're raising three kids?" Petersen asked her.

"I think $800 will be close to covering maybe gas and food, maybe not even that," Lee said.

Even though marijuana is legal in Colorado, it's still a controlled substance that insurance companies can take into consideration under Colorado statute. The statute was in effect long before Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use. A notice posted at construction sites and workplaces across the state says clearly if the injury was the result of using alcohol or a controlled substances, worker's compensation disability benefits may be reduced in half.

A medical expert who reviewed Adam's coroner report told CBS News Adam's marijuana levels suggest he was a chronic user, but do not indicate when he used marijuana last.

Karen Steinhauser, a criminal defense attorney who is not directly linked to this case, said unlike alcohol, testing for marijuana is a unique challenge. 
 
"Marijuana is difficult in and of itself because it is a controlled substance that unlike some others can stay in the system for 45 to 90 days at a time," Steinhauser said.

"So really and truly, you just don't know from an autopsy when a person had used the marijuana," Petersen said.

"You have no idea," she responded.

In a statement, Pinnacol Assurance told CBS News: "We understand the disappointment when survivors aren't granted full benefits." The company went on to cite Colorado's statute about cutting benefits "when alcohol or controlled substances are found in the blood stream."

Lee said to her knowledge, her husband did not use marijuana while on the job.

Next month, Lee will bring her case against Pinnacol to an administrative judge hoping they will up her payment another $800 a month.

"They're choosing to put me through this. Day after day… they're fighting me over $800 a month, which to them is nothing, but me raising three kids on a teacher's salary, it's everything," Lee said.