Court Rules Medical Marijuana Users Can Be Fired

By Roy Maurer January 29, 2016

A federal court in New Mexico added to the growing body of U.S. case law holding that employers are under no duty to accommodate medical marijuana use by employees or job applicants, even when state law allows it.

The U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico dismissed a lawsuit from a newly hired employee who was fired for failing a drug test for marijuana, even though he used marijuana medicinally in accordance with state law.

The decision follows similar cases in California, Colorado, Michigan, Oregon and Washington.

Rojerio Garcia disclosed during his job interview with Tractor Supply Company that he had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and was participating in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program under the state’s Compassionate Use Act (CUA). Garcia was required to undergo a drug test as a condition of hire and was terminated after his drug test showed positive for cannabis metabolites. He sued Tractor Supply, alleging that the company terminated him based on his serious medical condition and his physicians’ recommendation to use medical marijuana.

Further, Garcia argued that his termination violated New Mexico’s Human Rights Act and the state’s CUA.

Judge William P. Johnson said the case turned on “whether New Mexico’s Compassionate Use Act combined with the New Mexico Human Rights Act provides a cause of action,” while “ever-present in the background of this case is whether the [federal] Controlled Substances Act pre-empts New Mexico state law.”

Johnson explained that New Mexico’s medical marijuana law does not include affirmative requirements mandating that employers accommodate medical marijuana cardholders, as some states—like Connecticut and Delaware—do. “The court finds that the CUA, combined with the New Mexico Human Rights Act, does not provide a cause of action for Mr. Garcia, as medical marijuana is not an accommodation that must be provided for by the employer,” he said.

The court also dismissed Garcia’s claims that Tractor Supply fired him because of his serious medical condition, “as marijuana use is not a manifestation of HIV/AIDS, nor is testing positive for marijuana conduct.”

In addition, the court ruled that requiring Tractor Supply to accommodate Garcia’s use of a drug that is still illegal under federal law would require it to permit conduct that is prohibited under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

Several state courts have held that state medical marijuana laws do not conflict with the CSA because the state laws merely provide limited state-law immunity from prosecution if people engage in state-law-compliant medical marijuana use.

“These courts have found that the state law does not present an obstacle to the accomplishment of the federal law and does not deny the federal government the ability to enforce the prohibition,” Johnson said. “Yet these cases addressed only whether the CSA pre-empted the state-law immunity that state medical marijuana acts granted its citizens. … Garcia does not merely seek state-law immunity for his marijuana use. Rather, he seeks the state to affirmatively require Tractor Supply to accommodate his marijuana use. To affirmatively require Tractor Supply to accommodate Mr. Garcia’s illegal drug use would mandate Tractor Supply to permit the very conduct the CSA proscribes.”

Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., have now legalized medical marijuana, creating challenges for employers caught between state and federal laws.

“Employers have a duty of care for their employees while in their workplace, and given that substance use, including marijuana, causes increased workplace accidents among other problems, employers have the right to have a drug-free workplace policy and enforce it,” said Laura Shelton, executive director of the Drug & Alcohol Testing Industry Association, based in Washington, D.C. “The many courts that have consistently upheld this right show its merit.”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy


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