Employers and the courts continue to wrestle with issues involving “zero tolerance” drug testing policies and whether employers must accommodate medical marijuana use by their employees. Marijuana use is illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act, and therefore does not need to be accommodated under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). However, 15 states currently have legalized some form or another of medical marijuana use: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington as well as the District of Columbia. The language of each state’s law can differ, and the courts therefore interpret these state law issues on a case-by-case basis.
Most recently, in Casias v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a Michigan federal district court ruled that an employee who was terminated by Wal-Mart after testing positive for validly obtained medical marijuana stated no legal claims for wrongful discharge. The court accepted Wal-Mart’s argument that Michigan’s medical marijuana law does not regulate private employment; rather, it merely provides a potential affirmative defense to criminal prosecution or other adverse action by the state. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the law created a new protected employee class, which “would mark a radical departure from the general rule of at-will employment in Michigan.” The Casias decision is currently being appealed.
A similar ruling is under review by the Washington State Supreme Court. I argued the case for the employer on January 18, 2011. As I previously blogged, the Washington Court of Appeals in Roe v. Teletech Customer Care Management affirmed a trial court’s ruling and held that Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act (“MUMA”) does not protect medical marijuana users from adverse hiring or disciplinary decisions based on an employer’s drug test policy. In so doing, the Court of Appeals stated, “MUMA neither grants employment rights for qualifying users nor creates civil remedies for alleged violations of the Act.” Rather, the Court held that MUMA merely protects qualified patients and their physicians from state criminal prosecution related to the authorized use of medical marijuana. The Court further held that when Washington’s voters passed MUMA through the initiative process, they did not intend to impose a duty on employers to accommodate employee use of medical marijuana. A decision from the Washington Supreme Court is anticipated later this year.
Three other state Supreme Courts have already issued rulings on workplace medical marijuana issues, and all have found in the employer’s favor. In Ross v. RagingWire, the California Supreme Court ruled that it is not discrimination to fire an employee for using medical marijuana. The court held that employers in California do not need to accommodate the use of medical marijuana, even when users only ingest or smoke marijuana away from the workplace.
In Johnson v. Columbia Falls Aluminum Company, the Montana Supreme Court ruled, in an unpublished decision, that an employer is not required to accommodate an employee's use of medical marijuana under the federal ADA or the Montana Human Rights Act.
Also previously covered on World of Employment, in Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor & Industries, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that because federal criminal law takes precedence over Oregon’s medical marijuana law, employers in Oregon do not have to accommodate employees' use of medical marijuana. Stoel Rives filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the employer in that case.
There are many sound reasons why employers have zero tolerance policies and engage in drug testing of applicants and/or employees, including, without limitation, customer requirements, government contracting requirements (including the federal Drug Free Workplace Act), federal or state laws (including DOT requirements for transportation workers), workplace safety, productivity, health and absenteeism, and liability. To best protect themselves, employers should review their policies to make sure that illegal drug use under both state and federal law are prohibited, and that their policies prohibit any detectable amount of illegal drugs in an applicant’s or employee’s system as opposed to using an “under the influence” standard. Employers should also ensure that all levels of their human resources personnel know how to handle medical marijuana issues as they arise. Finally, given the continued efforts by marijuana advocates and civil rights groups to “push the envelope” of medical marijuana laws into the workplace, it is important for employers to continue to closely monitor legislative and legal developments. A recent effort to include workplace protections for medical marijuana users via amendments to Washington’s medical marijuana laws was defeated, but we anticipate similar efforts will be made in Washington and other states in the coming years.