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Marijuana in the Workplace: The Growing Conflict Between Drug and Employment Laws

Despite the growing number of states that have legalized the use of marijuana, the drug remains illegal under federal drug laws. The legal landscape is made more confusing when considering the differing levels of employment protection that these state laws offer to marijuana users. With this patchwork of state laws, employers are left to grapple with whether and how to accommodate their employees who use marijuana for medical purposes or for off-duty personal consumption.

The Legal Landscape

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical and/or recreational use of marijuana. These jurisdictions provide marijuana users with varying levels of protection against employment discrimination. The majority—Alaska, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—merely decriminalize use. Other jurisdictions—Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island—in addition to decriminalizing use, also provide statutory protections against discrimination. Some of these jurisdictions even require accommodation of underlying disabilities.

However, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug (high potential for abuse, no acceptable medical use) and remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substance Act (“CSA”). While last year Congress passed a bill to defund the Department of Justice’s efforts to challenge state-legal medical marijuana programs, the Obama administration’s public position is that it “steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana.”

Federal precedent in this area has provided employers with broad rights to take adverse action against individuals who use marijuana, whether or not for medical purposes and/or protected under state law. For instance, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), courts have held that marijuana users—regardless of the legality of the use under state law—are not qualified individuals with a disability entitled to anti-discrimination protections. See, e.g., James v. City of Costa Mesa, 700 F.3d 394 (9th Cir. 2012).

Employers, however, must be careful not to rely on medical marijuana use as a pretext for firing an employee with an underlying disability. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) recently took aim at a Michigan-based assisted living center that fired a nursing administrator who used medical marijuana to treat her epilepsy and thus failed a drug test on her second day of work. EEOC v. Pines of Clarkston, Inc., No. 13-CV-14076, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55926 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 29, 2015). The district court denied the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the individual’s ADA claim. Although acknowledging that a positive test for medical marijuana constituted a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for discharge, the district court concluded that the EEOC raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the articulated reason was a pretext for disability discrimination, particularly because the employee had been questioned about her disability during her interview and subsequently after the positive drug test. The case eventually settled but should be heeded by employers as a warning that a positive drug test for marijuana may not insulate them from discrimination claims under the ADA.

Unresolved Conflict Between Employer and Employee Rights Under State Law

State law provides greater protections to marijuana users. However, while courts have infrequently addressed the conflict between state law employment protection and marijuana use, those that have considered such issues generally have found in favor of an employer’s right to take adverse action against an employee who tests positive for marijuana.

The Colorado Supreme Court highlighted this issue when, in Coats v. Dish Network, 350 P.3d 849 (Colo. 2015), it held that an employee may be fired for using marijuana even though he legally used the drug off duty. Colorado law prohibits termination for lawful off-duty conduct, and Coats was a registered medical marijuana patient who only consumed marijuana during non-work hours. Nevertheless, because smoking marijuana was still illegal under the federal CSA, the court held that such use did not constitute lawful conduct under the Colorado statute.

The decision in Coats is consistent with earlier decisions in California, Montana, Oregon, and Washington that have held that decriminalization laws do not confer a legal right to smoke marijuana and that employers may take adverse action against users. See Ross v. RagingWire Telecomms., Inc., 174 P.3d 200 (Cal. 2008); Johnson v. Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., LLC, No. 08-0358, 2009 Mont. LEXIS 120 (Mont. 2009); Emerald Steel Fabricators, Inc. v. Bureau of Labor & Indus., 230 P.3d 518 (Or. 2010); Roe v. TeleTech Customer Care Mgmt. (Colo.) LLC, 257 P.3d 586 (Wash. 2011). Of course, statutes in these states have decriminalized marijuana use but do not expressly provide employment protections to users.

Employers must tread more carefully in jurisdictions that grant express protections to marijuana users. Courts in these states have not decided whether an employee’s rights under such a state statute trump the rights of an employer to take adverse action against the use of a drug categorized as illegal under federal law.

Advice for Employers

While many implications of legalizing marijuana use are yet to be decided by the courts, employers clearly may continue to prohibit the on-duty use of, or impairment by, marijuana. Employers, particularly federal contractors required to comply with the Drug Free Workplace Act, also may continue the implementation of workplace drug testing programs.

Employers, however, must treat positive tests for marijuana cautiously. Decisions in California, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Washington collectively provide support to take adverse action against employees who use marijuana, recreationally or medicinally, and may suggest that such employer-favorable rulings will issue even from courts reviewing state statutes providing employment protections. Thus, a bright-line approach to discharging or refusing to hire marijuana users may be defensible related to marijuana use. But given the uncertain state of the law, employers should consider taking the following steps to reduce potential liability:

  • Engage in the interactive process to determine whether medical marijuana use can be accommodated.

  • Particularly in jurisdictions providing employment protections for medical marijuana users, engage in a fact-based inquiry to determine whether the individual is a medical marijuana cardholder and whether the job can accommodate the individual’s use of medical marijuana.

  • Develop and/or review policies that expressly address the right to take adverse action upon a finding of marijuana use.

  • When taking such adverse action, document the reasons to avoid a pretext argument.

Of course, employers should work with legal counsel to closely monitor the changing legal landscape in their jurisdictions as this area of unsettled law is ripe for future litigation. 

©2021 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume V, Number 302

About this Author

Nathaniel M. Glasser, Epstein Becker, Labor, Employment Attorney, Publishing

NATHANIEL M. GLASSER is a Member of the Firm in the Labor and Employment practice, in the Washington, DC, office of Epstein Becker Green. His practice focuses on the representation of leading companies and firms, including publishing and media companies, financial services institutions, and law firms, in all areas of labor and employment relations.

Mr. Glasser’s experience includes:

  • Defending clients in employment litigation, from single-plaintiff to class action disputes,...

Jonathan K. Hoerner, Epstein Becker law firm Life Sciences Attorney Washington D.C.,

JONATHAN K. HOERNER is an Associate in the Health Care and Life Sciences practice, in the Washington, DC, office of Epstein Becker Green.

Mr. Hoerner:

  • Defends health care and life sciences companies in litigation as well as in connection with federal and state government investigations, qui tam actions, and internal investigations related to health care fraud
  • Advises clients regarding fraud and abuse issues arising under anti-kickback laws, the Stark Law, and the False Claims Act
  • Assists clients in evaluating, developing,...