ALEX COHEN, host:
Here in California, in 1996 voters legalized medical marijuana. But ever since then, the state has clashed with federal prohibitions on pot use. Yesterday the California Supreme Court ruled that employers can fire workers who use medical marijuana even if that marijuana was legally prescribed.
Rachel Dornhelm reports.
RACHEL DORNHELM: For four years, Gary Ross was in the Air Force. But then in 1983 while working on a plane, he fell from its wing. He says he fractured two bones in his back and separated some muscles from the vertebrae. Since then, he's had painful spasms, and the only thing that relaxes them is medical marijuana. It was never an issue until the systems administrator took a job at telecommunications firm RagingWire. When he started, they told him he'd take a mandatory drug test. He wasn't worried.
Mr. GARY ROSS (Systems Administrator): No. I had been tested before for other employers, larger employers. Once I showed them my medical recommendation, then they were satisfied.
DORNHELM: Not this time. Instead, he was fired. The company sent him a letter, saying he was fired because they found traces of marijuana in his urine sample. For Ross, the next step was a no-brainer.
Mr. ROSS: Oh, it was real easy. As soon as they terminated me, I was like, okay, I'm going to get me a lawyer because you're wrong.
DORNHELM: Ross's lawyers argued their client had just the kind of illness Californians had in mind when they voted to legalize medical marijuana under Proposition 215. Attorney Stuart Katz.
Mr. STUART KATZ (Lawyer): It seemed to us an absurdity that you could have a situation where the people approve the use of marijuana for those medically in need of it so they can live as close to a normal life as is possible given their afflictions, and then you say that doesn't mean you can still keep working.
DORNHELM: Katz also argued that under California laws, employers must make accommodation for employees with disabilities. And in Ross's case, he said, that meant RagingWire must accommodate Ross's need to control his chronic back pain. But California State Supreme Court justices disagreed. In their 5-2 decision, they ruled disability rights do not extend to marijuana use. That's exactly what RagingWire's lawyer Robert Pattison argued.
Mr. ROBERT PATTISON (Lawyer): The court makes clear that California law does not require California employers to accommodate one's use of illegal drugs.
Assemblyman MARK LENO (Democrat, California): That's just ridiculous.
DORNHELM: That's California Assemblyman Mark Leno.
Assemblyman LENO: The justices' decision implies that the millions of Californians who supported Prop 215 back in 1996 only intended it to be for people who were unemployed.
DORNHELM: 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.
Assemblyman LENO: Marijuana should not be, with regards to medical marijuana, it should not be treated any differently than any prescribed drug.
DORNHELM: But Professor Marsha Cohen, who specializes in food and drug law at UC Hastings Law School, says even if Leno succeeds in getting those employment protections for California medical pot users, the legal limbo won't end.
Professor MARSHA COHEN (University of California Hastings Law School): They might be able to change California statutes, but there will be - 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?
DORNHELM: Cohen says as long as the conflict between state and federal drug laws persist, the lives of medical marijuana users like Gary Ross will be unsettled.
For NPR News, I'm Rachel Dornhelm.
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