New Developments in Medical Marijuana and the Workplace

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, twenty-three states now have medical marijuana laws on the books.  The conventional wisdom is that these laws bring with them greater protections for employees who are users of medical marijuana.  Court rulings over the last several years, however, have shown that this conventional wisdom is not always correct and that not all state medical marijuana laws are created equal.

For example, last summer the Colorado Supreme Court held that although Colorado law allowed for the use of medical marijuana, that law did not prevent an employer from terminating a medical marijuana user who had tested positive for marijuana in violation of the company’s zero-tolerance drug policy.  Reaching a similar conclusion, a federal district court in Washington recently dismissed an employee’s discrimination complaint and found that the law in Washington does not require employers to accommodate the use of medical marijuana where they have a drug-free workplace policy.  Swaw v. Safeway, Inc. (W.D. Wash. 2015).  In Swaw, the court pointed to an earlier 2011 decision from the Washington Supreme Court, which held that Washington’s medical marijuana law “does not regulate the conduct of a private employer or protect an employee from being discharged because of authorized medical marijuana use.”

That courts in Colorado and Washington (and California and Oregon, to name a few others) have construed medical marijuana laws in favor of employers does not mean that employers in other states with medical marijuana laws can assume their courts would reach similar interpretations.  This is because the medical marijuana laws in some states, such as Washington and Colorado, simply de-criminalize medical marijuana without providing any specific employment protections.  Other states, however, such as Maine, include specific protections that prohibit employers from taking adverse action against an employee based on his or her status as a medical marijuana user.  Consequently, court rulings from “de-criminalization” states should not be viewed as indicative of how a court would rule in another jurisdiction, such as Maine, where the applicable law expressly provides for some level of employment protection for medical marijuana users.

Although Maine’s courts have had little opportunity to weigh in on the issue of medical marijuana, Maine’s Department of Labor has recently issued a report that recommends several changes to the state’s drug testing law.  The report is the culmination of a workgroup that was convened by MDOL to explore a number of issues relating to substance use and abuse in the workplace, including the medical use of marijuana. The report, which is available here, recommends two changes.  The first change is directed at streamlining the process to approve drug testing policies and recommends the use of a uniform drug testing policy, which would be prepared by MDOL and used by all employers in the state. The second change involves replacing the “probable cause” standard for drug testing with a program whereby employers would receive training to detect impairments, regardless of their cause, and employers would then have the option to refer the alleged impairment case to a “preferred occupational provider” to confirm the impairment and make recommendations to address or accommodate the cause.