As a responsible employer, operating a drug-free environment is just a part of daily life. Random drug testing may or may not be a part of your culture, but insisting that your workforce be mentally present at times is a necessity. But what happens when an employee holds a valid prescription for medical marijuana, and tests positive for use? Or worse, what happens when the worker shows up to work under the influence?
What makes matters more confusing is that medicinal marijuana is legal in several states, including California, and illegal under federal law. Colorado and Washington take the liberation one step further, authorizing marijuana use for recreational purposes.
Societal liberalism and legal mandate collide under the topic of medical marijuana, as employers and employees alike struggle to define their roles in the national debate. In Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc., however, the California Supreme Court resolved the issue for California workers, holding that employers are well within their rights to terminate an employee for using marijuana – even if the employee is complying with state law, the marijuana is prescribed by a physician, and they only use it outside of the workplace.
The factual backdrop for the decision is rather interesting. Gary Ross sustained injuries while serving in the U.S. Air Force, leading to a lifelong bout of back spasms. Ross then began using medicinal marijuana based on his doctor’s recommendation. When Ross tested positive for marijuana in a drug screening test given by his employer, he was terminated.
Ross sued his employer, claiming that he was disabled and protected by California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996, the law permitting medicinal marijuana use. Thus, Ross claimed that when his employer failed to make reasonable accommodations for his condition, and terminated him, it violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s prohibition against disability discrimination.
In a 5-2 vote, the California Supreme Court held that the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, the law which permits patients to possess and cultivate marijuana for their personal medical use, did not create a blanket right to use medical marijuana; it simply provided a defense to state criminal prosecutions. Thus, the court ruled the Act did not impinge upon an employer’s right to prohibit its employees from using marijuana.