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Recreational Marijuana in Massachusetts: What Should Employers Know?

Beginning July 1, 2018, recreational marijuana can be legally sold, taxed, and consumed in Massachusetts—one of nine states, in addition to Washington, D.C., that now permits recreational marijuana use. Massachusetts already is one of 29 states that allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes (and 17 others permit certain low-THC cannabis products for medical reasons).

Background

Legalization of recreational marijuana started in 2016 with a ballot initiative by Massachusetts voters. The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act (“Marijuana Act”), which took effect on December 15, 2016, provides that “[t]his chapter shall not require an employer to permit or accommodate conduct otherwise allowed by this chapter in the workplace and shall not affect the authority of employers to enact and enforce workplace policies restricting the consumption of marijuana by employees.” Thus, while the Marijuana Act expressly permits employers to prohibit employees from using or being under the influence of marijuana in the workplace, it does not address whether an employer can regulate employees’ lawful use of marijuana off duty.

How Might a Court Rule if an Employer Banned Off-Duty Recreational Marijuana Use?

Employers may terminate an employee for off-duty and/or off-site recreational marijuana use because Massachusetts, unlike a number of other states, has no statutory protection for employees’ lawful off-duty conduct, such as smoking.

There are, however, other claims an aggrieved applicant or employee might bring absent the off-duty conduct statute protections. In one case, an employee who was terminated by his employer for violation of the company’s non-smoking policy when he tested positive for nicotine brought a case claiming a right to privacy. See Rodrigues v. EG Sys., 639 F. Supp. 2d 131, 133 (D. Mass. 2009).   A federal court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims that the employer violated his right to privacy because the plaintiff made no attempt to keep his smoking private: he testified to smoking outdoors and purchasing cigarettes with coworkers. Id.

In Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, a 2017 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, a new hire disclosed a prescription for medical marijuana she used for Crohn’s Disease. 78 N.E. 3d 37, 42 (Mass. 2017). HR personnel informed her that her prescribed, off-duty use would be acceptable; however, when she tested positive after working for one day, the company terminated her employment.

The Barbuto court permitted the employee’s reasonable accommodations claim. Specifically, the court held that although marijuana use is still illegal at the federal level, the public policy of Massachusetts prioritizes accommodating workers with disabilities.

Although the use of medical marijuana could be considered a public policy concern under certain circumstances, given that an employee may be discharged for the off-duty conduct of smoking cigarettes, it is unlikely that Massachusetts courts would protect employees who test positive for recreational marijuana use. Unlike medical marijuana use, recreational marijuana use likely does not implicate public policy considerations because the use of medical marijuana has health benefits related to treating illness and disease, whereas the use of recreational marijuana does not.

With respect to privacy arguments akin to those asserted in Rodrigues, courts might distinguish marijuana from cigarettes for a variety of reasons. In Massachusetts, marijuana consumption in public and in vehicles is prohibited, whereas cigarette smokers have greater freedom to smoke outdoors and in vehicles. Additionally, marijuana, unlike cigarettes, is still illegal under federal law.

How Can Massachusetts Employers Manage Employees While Avoiding Legal Risks of Employees Using Recreational Marijuana?

Although neither the law nor the applicable regulations address employee-employer rights in the context of recreational marijuana, and it is too soon for the courts to have weighed in, employers likely have the right to terminate an employee for recreational marijuana consumption, even where that consumption occurs off duty and/or off-site. To minimize any risk that an employee may bring a viable legal claim resulting from the termination of employment or rescission of a conditional offer of employment due to a positive drug test, employers should consider the following:

  1. Employers that continue to enforce zero tolerance policies and either decline to hire or terminate individuals for marijuana use should articulate to employees that the test will screen for marijuana, and clearly define “illegal” drugs as those banned under federal, state, or local law to avoid conflicts regarding its legal status in Massachusetts.
  2. As recreational use becomes more prevalent in Massachusetts, in light of the Marijuana Act, talent pool considerations may favor loosening drug-testing policies, at least for certain positions.
  3. Though Massachusetts law currently permits pre-employment drug screening for any reason (as long as it is non-discriminatory), employers may choose to eliminate standardized testing policies and instead opt to test only upon “reasonable suspicion” that the employee is under the influence at work.
  4. Multistate employers should update employee handbooks with particular emphasis on any changes made to their drug-testing policies and decide whether they plan to standardize testing across the company or enact carve-outs for recreational marijuana states.
  5. Notwithstanding the above, because health care employers in particular face safety issues and high risks associated with patient care, those considerations may weigh in favor of enforcement of zero tolerance and standardized testing policies – particularly with respect to recreational marijuana – in patient-care and other safety-sensitive positions.
  6. Employers in highly regulated industries, such as health care and transportation, should be aware of additional regulations that govern drug testing in their industries.
  7. Drug-testing policies should make clear that on-the-job marijuana consumption or being under the influence of marijuana remains against company policy. Further, employers wishing to prohibit off-duty or off-site recreational consumption should expressly state that such conduct may result in discipline or termination of employment.

This post was written with assistance from John W. Milani, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

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©2021 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume VIII, Number 180
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About this Author

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

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,...

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