Calif. High Court Rules Employers Can Fire Workers Using Medical Marijuana

January 28, 2008

Employers can fire workers found to have used medical marijuana even if it was legally prescribed, the California Supreme Court ruled last Thursday, dealing the state another setback in its standoff with U.S. law enforcement.

The high court upheld a small telecommunications company’s firing of a man who failed a company-ordered drug test. Gary Ross held a medical marijuana card authorizing him to use the drug to treat a back injury sustained while serving in the Air Force.

The company, Ragingwire Inc., argued that it rightfully fired Ross because all marijuana use is illegal under federal law, which does not recognize the medical marijuana laws in California and 11 other states.

The U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2005 that state medicinal marijuana laws do not protect users from prosecution. The Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies have been actively shutting down major medical marijuana dispensaries throughout California over the last two years and charging their operators with felony distribution charges.

Ragingwire said it fired Ross because it feared it could be the target of a federal raid, among other reasons.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the Western Electrical Contractors Association Inc. had joined Ragingwire’s case, arguing that companies could lose federal contracts and grants if they allowed employees to smoke pot.

Ross had argued that medical marijuana users should receive the same workplace protection from discipline that employees with valid painkiller prescriptions do. California voters legalized medicinal marijuana in 1996.

The nonprofit marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, which represents Ross, estimates that 300,000 Americans use medical marijuana. The group said it has received hundreds of employee discrimination complaints in California since it began tracking the issue in 2005.

Safe Access attorney Joe Elford said the group will focus on urging the state Legislature to pass a law protecting workers who use medical marijuana.

“We remain confident that there will be a day when medical marijuana patients are not discriminated against in the workplace,” he said.

Eleven states have adopted medical-marijuana laws similar to California’s: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

The American Medical Association advocates keeping marijuana classified as a tightly controlled and dangerous drug that should not be legalized until more research is done.

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