California workers who use medical marijuana are not protected by employment discrimination laws, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed on behalf of a former telecommunications administrator, Gary Ross, who suffers from chronic lower back pain and muscle spasms.
In 1983, Ross — then enrolled in the U.S. Air Force — fell from the wing of a plane he was working on, fracturing two bones in his back and separating some muscles from the vertebrae. He says the only thing that works to relax the resulting painful spasms is marijuana.
This was never an issue, he says, until he took a job at the telecommunications firm RagingWire. When he started, the company told him he would have to take a drug test. In the past, he had bypassed the process by showing employers his medical marijuana recommendation. Not this time. Instead, the company sent him a letter saying he was fired because traces of marijuana were found in his urine sample.
The next step was obvious, he says.
"Oh, it was real easy. As soon as they terminated me, I was like, 'I'm going to get me a lawyer because you're wrong,'" he says.
Disabilities and Marijuana
Ross' lawyer, Stewart Katz, argued his client had just the kind of illness Californians had in mind when they voted to legalize medical marijuana under Proposition 215.
"It seemed to us an absurdity where the people approved the use of marijuana for those medically in need of it so they can live as normal a life as possible, given their afflictions," Katz said, "and then you say that you can't still keep working."
Katz also argued that under California laws employers must make accommodations for employees with disabilities. In Ross' case, he said, that meant RagingWire must accommodate his need to control his chronic back pain.
But the California State Supreme Court disagreed. In their 5-to-2 decision, the justices ruled disability rights do not extend to marijuana use.
"The court makes clear that California law, specifically the Fair Employment and Housing Act, does not require California employers to accommodate one's use of illegal drugs," RagingWire's lawyer Robert Pattison said.
In 1996, millions of Californians voted to legalize medical cannabis under Prop 215. Critics of the ruling say it implies that the use of medical marijuana for "compassionate purposes" is intended only for people who are unemployed.
"That's just ridiculous," says California Assemblyman Mark Leno. Within hours of the court's decision, the San Francisco Democrat said he'll formally introduce legislation within the next two weeks to protect the employment rights of medical marijuana users.
"Marijuana should not be treated any differently than any prescribed drug," says Prof. Marsha Cohen, who specializes in food and drug law at the University of California Hastings Law School.
Even if Leno succeeds in getting those employment protections for California medical marijuana users, the legal limbo won't end, she says.
"They might be able to change California statutes, but then further questions arise. What if you're a federal contractor and you're required to comply with federal statutes, which require you to fire anybody who flunks a blood test, even for marijuana, even with a doctor's note," she says.
Cohen says as long as the conflict between state and federal drug laws persists, the lives of medical marijuana users like Ross will be unsettled.