Washington State Marijuana Legalization Law Need Not Affect Employer Drug Testing Policies

There are many sound reasons why employers have zero tolerance policies and engage in drug testing of applicants and/or employees, including customer requirements, government contracting requirements (e.g.,the federal Drug Free Workplace Act), federal or state laws (including DOT requirements for transportation workers), workplace safety, productivity, health and absenteeism, and liability. 

Some Washington state employers may be wondering whether any workplace implications have been created by the election day passage of voter Initiative 502, which made Washington the first state, with Colorado, to reject federal drug-control policy and legalize recreational marijuana use.  The simple answer is it does not change a Washington employer’s rights. 

We previously blogged a similar issue when discussing a 2011 Washington Supreme Court decision holding that Washington’s Medical Use of Marijuana Act does not protect medical marijuana users from adverse hiring or disciplinary decisions based on an employer’s drug test policy. Also previously covered in World of Employment, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that because federal criminal law preempts Oregon’s medical marijuana law, employers in Oregon do not have to accommodate employees' use of medical marijuana.

Similar concepts apply to the new Washington State marijuana legalization law.  Marijuana still remains illegal for all purposes under the federal Controlled Substances Act.  Employers simply do not have to condone illegal drug use, possession or influence at their workplace.

In light of state marijuana legalization efforts, to best protect themselves, employers should review their policies to make sure that illegal drug use under both state and federal law is prohibited, and that their policies prohibit any detectable amount of illegal drugs as opposed to 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.

This issue has been getting a lot of attention in the state and national media since the election.  For example, see this story in the Puget Sound Business Journal, and another article I wrote at the Law360 website (note that you need a subscription for Law 360).

Lawmakers Aim to Take the "Spice" out of Synthetic Drug Use.

Meghan M. Kelly also contributed to this post.

Alaska has joined the growing list of states that have outlawed the sale or possession of “synthetic cannabinoids.” These so-called designer drugs are sold under trade names like “Spice” and “K2”, and are essentially chemicals sprayed on dried weeds then rolled and smoked like marijuana. 

Alaska’s new law, that you can see here, criminalizes certain chemical combinations used to create synthetic cannabinoids, in effect banning the substance.   Possession of these chemicals is punishable as a Class C felony down to a misdemeanor, depending on quantity. The ban became effective July 1, 2011.

 

At least thirty states have banned synthetic cannabinoids and several others are currently considering such legislation.   In March, the federal government issued an “emergency listing” under the Controlled Substances Act of five compounds used to produce synthetic cannabinoids.

 

What does this mean for employers?

 

Synthetic cannabiniods may look like marijuana, but their affect on users more closely resembles methamphetamine or PCP. It is reported that the drug can cause paranoia and severe anxiety, hallucinations, nausea, suicidal thoughts, and combative behavior, among other symptoms. Poison centers across the country had nearly 5400 calls related to synthetic cannabinoid use between January 2010 and May 2011. Employers need to understand these symptoms and their impact on productivity and workplace safety.

 

Drug Free Workplace policies that ban use of illegal substances or “controlled substances” as defined by the Controlled Substance Act now have the backing of Alaska’s law and the federal government’s listing. Designer drugs are a rapidly evolving market, and employer drug testing programs must continue to evolve as well. While drug testing companies can test for synthetic cannabiniods, few employers in Alaska have taken this step. Presently, testing for synthetic drugs requires a separate test from the ordinary panel and it is expensive.

 

Certain workforces may be more prone to use of synthetic cannabinoids, and it is important for employers to determine the needs of their company and workforce. The Air Force began using urinalysis to screen for Spice in February 2011 and other branches of the armed services, some of the largest employers in the country, have started moving in the same direction.

Victory For Employers in Washington Medical Marijuana Case

In a victory for employers, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled 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. Click here to download a copy of the decision in Roe v. Teletech Customer Care Management. The lawsuit and all appeals were handled for the employer by Stoel Rives attorneys Jim Shore and Molly Daily.

Jane Roe (who did not use her real name because medical marijuana use is illegal under federal law) sued Teletech for terminating her employment after she failed a drug test required by Teletech’s substance abuse policy. She alleged that she had been wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy and MUMA since her marijuana use was “protected” by MUMA. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Teletech, and Roe appealed. As discussed in a previous blog, the Washington Court of Appeals, Division II affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Roe’s case. Roe then appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of in Teletech, holding that MUMA provides an affirmative defense to state criminal prosecutions of qualified medical marijuana users, but “does not provide a private cause of action for discharge of an employee who uses medical marijuana, either expressly or impliedly, nor does MUMA create a clear public policy that would support a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of such a policy.” The Court’s holding applies regardless of whether the employee’s marijuana use was while working or while off-site during non-work time. Adding to a significant victory for employers, the Court’s decision extends to the current version of MUMA as amended by the Legislature in 2007, and not just the original version passed by the voters in 1998 in effect when the facts of the case arose.

The plaintiff in the Teletech case did not raise a disability discrimination or reasonable accommodation claim under Washington’s Law Against Discrimination, and the Supreme Court therefore did not expressly reach that particular issue. But the Court did point out that marijuana remains illegal under federal law regardless of what the State of Washington does, and that it would be incongruous “to allow an employee to engage in illegal activity” in the process of finding a public policy exception to the at-will-employment doctrine. Moreover, the Court noted that the Washington State Human Rights Commission itself acknowledges that “it would not be a reasonable accommodation of a disability for an employer to violate federal law, or allow an employee to violate federal law, by employing a person who uses medical marijuana.”

The workplace implications of medical marijuana continue to be a developing area in many states. California’s Supreme Court has ruled in a manner consistent with Washington. Also previously covered in World of Employment, in Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor & Industries, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that because federal criminal law preempts Oregon’s medical marijuana law, employers in Oregon do not have to accommodate employees' use of medical marijuana. But some states are more protective of an employee’s medical marijuana use. 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 may be made in other states in the coming years.

There are many sound reasons why employers have zero tolerance policies and engage in drug testing of applicants and/or employees, including customer requirements, government contracting requirements (e.g.,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 is prohibited, and that their policies prohibit any detectable amount of illegal drugs as opposed to 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.

Oregon Supreme Court: Employers Are Not Required to Accommodate Medical Marijuana

Yesterday the Oregon Supreme Court conclusively ruled that employers are not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana in the workplace, ending years of doubt and confusion on this critical issue. Click here to read the Court’s opinion in Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor and Industries.

In Emerald Steel, a drill press operator was terminated after his employer learned he was using medical marijuana to treat a medical condition that qualified as a disability under Oregon law. The employee filed a claim with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging that the employer’s refusal to accommodate his use of medical marijuana violated Oregon law requiring employers to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability. A judge ruled that the employer did not properly engage in the interactive process to determine whether other reasonable accommodations were possible.

The employer appealed that decision, arguing that neither federal nor state disability law requires employers to engage in the interactive process with users of medical marijuana, given that their use of marijuana is prohibited by federal law. The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the employee on the basis that the employer failed to preserve that argument in the case below. Further, a prior Oregon Court of Appeals case—Washburn v. Columbia Forest Products—had held that employers do have a duty to accommodate the use of medical marijuana by a disabled employee.

On appeal, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the trial judge and the Court of Appeals, and reversed the Oregon Court of Appeals’ decision in Washburn. The Supreme Court held that employers do not have to accommodate employees’ use of illegal drugs. Because marijuana—medical or otherwise—is illegal under federal law, employers are not required to accommodate its use under any circumstance.

Since the original Washburn decision, many Oregon employers have assumed they were obligated to accommodate the use of medical marijuana by disabled employees. The Emerald Steel decision should give all Oregon employers comfort in knowing that, until or unless federal law changes, they are definitely not required to accommodate medical marijuana use. A similar ruling from the Washington Court of Appeals is being reviewed by that state’s supreme court.  Stoel Rives represents the employer in that case. Click here to read the World of Employment's coverage of that case.

Starbucks Wins Round in Class Action over Applications' Marijuana Questions

Earlier this month, Starbucks scored an important procedural victory from the California Court of Appeals, which ruled that a class of employees lacked standing to sue over questions the coffee chain asked on its employment applications about prior marijuana convictions.  Click here to read the opinion in Starbucks v. Superior Court

Despite the apparent victory, this case teaches an important lesson for California employers:  make sure your employment applications do not inquire about minor marijuana possession convictions that are more than two years old.  Such questions violate California Labor Code Sections 432.7 and 432.8.  In the Starbucks case, even though the court held that the applications violated the statute, there was no evidence that any of the class members had been harmed; the outcome would have been different had the class consisted of employees who were denied employment based on their answers to the question, or employees who disclosed that information in response to the unlawful question.