Can medical marijuana get you fired? This has been a question on the minds of almost all those who use prescription cannabis. If medical marijuana is legal in a state, most employees feel that they should have no problem consuming it, the same as they would prescription pills. Unfortunately, since marijuana levels can be difficult to detect in your system and the drug sticks around on urine tests for a longer length of time, it can be difficult to ascertain if an employee is under the influence of the medication while he or she is engaged in work activities. To add to the conundrum, medical marijuana is not legal under federal law, making court cases a little trickier than they may originally seem.
The case of Brandon Coats
Five years ago, a Colorado Supreme Court case reaffirmed the right of business to terminate employees who test positive for use of marijuana even if it is prescribed for medical purposes. At the time of the dismissal, Coats, who was in his thirties, was paralyzed over more than 80 percent of his body due to a car accident at age sixteen. Although confined to a wheel chair for mobility, he was fully capable of working a job and was employed by DISH in the customer service department.
He had been using a variety of prescription medications to combat his involuntary muscle spasms, but, over time, the medication became less effective. His physicians then recommended that he add medical marijuana to his treatment regimen and he was issued his state MMJ card. During the case, Coats reiterated the fact that he never consumed this medication on company property or was under the influence of it during business hours.
After being subjected to a random drug test and informing the employee performing the test that he was an MMJ patient, he tested positive for THC. He was told his patient status did not matter, and that Colorado state law did not apply to his job. He was then terminated for a violation of the company’s drug policy. The court case that ensued was originally dismissed, but eventually reached the Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of DISH. After reaching the Colorado Supreme Court, the Court stated that since the CSC ruling does not define the term “lawful”, that the term should not be limited to state statues alone, making the use of marijuana illegal in the workplace.
A differing view from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts emerges
A recent case of a similar employee dismissal reached its way to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, where a different type of ruling was handed down. The case involved the termination of employee Cristina Barbuto, a medical marijuana patient, who used the drug to treat Crohn’s disease. Unlike the Colorado case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that blanket anti-marijuana laws cannot be used against employees who have legally prescribed marijuana recommended by their doctor.
While the findings in the Barbuto case will not have an impact on the Coat’s case, lawyers are hoping that the case will help pave the way to grant more patient protections in states that allow medical marijuana.
Many legal minds agree that the Coats case was more about the Colorado Supreme Court not wanting to, or not being prepared to, challenge federal law under the 10th Amendment, which reserves decision-making power to the states. The hope for the future is that courts will begin to take the risk so that medical marijuana patients can be entitled to the same protections that any patient receiving medication under a doctor’s care would receive. While the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruling gives lawyers and patients hope, it may continue to be an uphill battle to protect MMJ patients from employment termination.