Revisiting Medical Marijuana and Employment in California

A recent decision by the Oregon Supreme Court empowered businesses in the state to strictly enforce their zero-tolerance drug policies against those who use medical marijuana. Specifically, the court found that “Under Oregon’s employment discrimination laws, employers are not required to accommodate an employee’s use of medical marijuana.”

What exactly is the state of California’s stance on medical marijuana and employer drug policies?

This was the precise issue before the Supreme Court of California in Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc., a 2008 decision.

Gary Ross was a former Air Force mechanic who severely injured his back in a fall from an airplane wing in 1983. He eventually received a prescription for medical marijuana from his physician in 1999 to help manage the pain associated with his injury. The prescription was made possible by California’s Compassionate Use Act. This legislation was enacted in 1996 and legalized both the use and sale of medical marijuana to those with chronic illnesses or infirmities.

In 2001, Ross was fired from his job as a lead systems administrator for RagingWire Telecommunications after testing positive for marijuana. He eventually filed a lawsuit alleging both wrongful termination and discrimination against RagingWire that made it all the way to the Supreme Court of California.

Here, the court determined that the Compassionate Use Act only addressed the issue of criminal liability and was never intended to apply to the employment sector.

Specifically, the court said: “Although California’s voters had no power to change federal law, certainly they were free to disagree with Congress’s assessment of marijuana, and they also were free to view the possibility of beneficial medical use as a sufficient basis for exempting from criminal liability under state law patients whose physicians recommend the drug. The logic of this position, however, did not compel the voters to take the additional step of requiring employers to accommodate marijuana use by their employees. The voters were entitled to change the criminal law without also speaking to employment law.”

With all of the recent conversation regarding the legalization of marijuana, it is easy to lose sight of the existing legal landscape. Under California law, employers are still free to terminate you for the use of medical marijuana. The law is not without limitations.

Related Resources:

• Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc., 174 P.3d 200 (Cal. 2008) 

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