Golden State Court Clears Employer in Pot Use Firing

January 25, 2008 (PLANSPONSOR.COM) - California's highest court has ruled that while the state's Compassionate Use Act of 1996 gives medical marijuana users a defense against criminal charges, it does not protect them in the workplace.

In issuing that ruling, the California Supreme Court cleared employer RagingWire Telecommunications Inc. of wrongdoing for firing systems administrator Gary Ross over his marijuana use.

According to the Golden State high court’s decision, Ross had supplied RagingWire’s human resources department and the administrator of his pre-employment drug test with copies of his doctor’s written recommendation that Ross use marijuana to alleviate pain from a back injury. Noting that marijuana use is illegal under federal law, RagingWire fired Ross despite the physician’s pot-use recommendation.

Ross argued that the Compassionate Use Act implies that medical marijuana should be treated just like any legal prescription drug, and medical marijuana users should be treated like other people with disabilities.

“Although California’s voters had no power to change federal law, certainly they were free to disagree with Congress’s assessment of marijuana, and they also were free to view the possibility of beneficial medical use as a sufficient basis for exempting from criminal liability under state law patients whose physicians recommend the drug,” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote for the court. “The logic of this position, however, did not compel the voters to take the additional step of requiring employers to accommodate marijuana use by their employees. The voters were entitled to change the criminal law without also speaking to employment law.”

Werdegar added: “Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and duties of employers and employees. Under California law, an employer may require preemployment drug tests and take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions.”

Americans for Safe Access chief counsel Joseph Elford, who argued the case for Ross, told The Recorder he was “extremely disappointed” in Thursday’s ruling, but pointed out that the majority opinion left open “an invitation to the Legislature to clarify the Fair Employment and Housing Act and make clear that it covers medical marijuana patients just like it would cover any other disabled person.” 

The news report said that within hours after the decision was filed, state Assemblyman Mark Leno vowed to introduce a bill that would strengthen medical marijuana patients’ rights in the workplace.

The ruling is here .