With so many states enacting legislation permitting marijuana use in some form, new questions have developed as to employers’ rights regarding marijuana use by employees. 30 states and the District of Columbia currently permit marijuana use for medicinal purposes. Of those states that allow medicinal marijuana, 9 states and the District of Columbia also permit recreational marijuana use, in some form. With more states considering similar legislation, allowance of recreational marijuana use seems to be on the rise. However, despite support for some level of marijuana use among the majority of states, marijuana use is still prohibited under federal law. This inconsistency creates some uncertainty for employers who are unsure how to handle the issue of marijuana in the workplace.
Marijuana Use Under Federal Law
Under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is prohibited as a Schedule 1 illegal drug. The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals on the basis of a disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. Since medicinal marijuana is often prescribed to individuals with disabilities recognized under the ADA, a question arises regarding how medicinal marijuana use affects the protections of disabled individuals under the ADA. However, the ADA specifically excludes protection for individuals “currently engaging in the illegal use of drugs.” Such individuals are not considered “qualified individuals with disabilities” under the ADA. The Act defines “illegal use of drugs” as the use of drugs that are unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act. Since marijuana remains prohibited under the Controlled Substances Act, as a Schedule 1 substance, courts have historically found that employers are not required to provide accommodations for the use of medicinal marijuana under the ADA.
Marijuana Use Under D.C., Maryland, and Virginia Law
D.C., Virginia, and Maryland have all taken steps towards legalizing marijuana use, in some form, but each location’s legislation varies greatly. Understanding your state’s policy on marijuana use and the related rights of employees and employers is vital to staying in compliance with changing policies.
Maryland has passed legislation permitting the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. However, this legislation does not prevent employers from testing for marijuana use and does not protect employees that test positive for any reason.
Virginia has passed a very narrow medical exception to the Virginia Drug Control Act, which classifies marijuana as an illegal substance. Under the Virginia law, possession of marijuana is not legalized, but an affirmative defense is created for individuals with intractable epilepsy who meet specific medicinal marijuana requirements. Virginia does not provide any protections for prospective or current employees that use medicinal marijuana.
D.C. has passed legislation permitting medicinal marijuana use, as well as recreational marijuana use for individuals over the age of 21. Current D.C. employees do not have any employment protections for medicinal or recreational marijuana use. However, under the Pre-Employment Marijuana Testing Act of 2015, employers are prohibited from testing prospective employees for marijuana prior to a conditional offer of employment. Employers are permitted to require prospective employees to take drug tests after a conditional offer of employment has been made.
What Does this Mean for Employers?
It is important to note that in states that permit use of marijuana for some purpose, no state permits employees to use or be under the influence of marijuana in the workplace. Additionally, no state provides employment protections for employees or job applicants who use marijuana recreationally. However, some states offer limited employment protections for employees and job applicants who use marijuana for medicinal services. In such states, employees or job applicants who are discriminated against due to their medicinal marijuana use may have legal claims under state disability or marijuana laws. As noted above, none of the statutes in D.C., Virginia, or Maryland specifically provide workplace protections for employees using medicinal marijuana. Private employers in these states are free to set their own drug policies, including zero-tolerance, drug-free workplace policies, and to discipline or terminate an employee who violates those policies.
Even in states that allow some form of marijuana use, federal contractors must still maintain zero-tolerance policies. Additionally, the Department of Transportation specifically stated that a state’s allowance of marijuana use will not be a valid explanation for a transportation employee’s positive drug test. The DOT also explained that any safety-sensitive employee subject to drug testing under the DOT’s regulations are not permitted to use marijuana, regardless of a state’s policies.
Recent court decisions may point to a shift in the way courts view medicinal marijuana use. Historically, employees fired for off-duty medicinal marijuana use have lost lawsuits against their employers, because even though medicinal marijuana may be legal under state law, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. However, recent cases have disagreed. In 2017, a Rhode Island court found that an employer couldn’t refuse to hire an individual because of her status as a medical marijuana cardholder and use of medicinal marijuana outside of work. Again in 2017, a Massachusetts court found that a medical marijuana user who was fired for failing a drug test could proceed with her discrimination claim. The court found that although illegal federally, the state’s disability discrimination law permitted employees a right to seek a reasonable accommodation for medicinal marijuana use. Continuing the trend, in 2018 a Connecticut court found that an employer discriminated against a job applicant and violated Connecticut’s medical marijuana law when it refused to hire a medical marijuana user after she tested positive on a pre-employment drug test. Courts in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia have not yet addressed the issue. However, these court cases show the importance of staying up to date with court decisions depicting how courts view issues regarding termination of employees who use medicinal marijuana.
Since there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding issues of medicinal marijuana in the workplace, employers need to balance the safety-sensitivity of specific job positions against any potential legal protections for employees with disabilities using medicinal marijuana. Below are some tips for employers to consider to help walk that line:
- Require employees to acknowledge, in writing, that any medicinal marijuana use is legitimate and won’t be used in the workplace or in a way that may affect their work;
- Review existing policies to update language with state law to clarify ambiguous language—prohibiting “illegal drugs” may create confusion regarding whether legal medicinal marijuana is permitted;
- Review the nature of your workplace and determine your tolerance for marijuana use outside of work and what the consequences of an employee testing positive for marijuana will be. For example, jobs that require employees to operate machinery or handle dangerous tools or substances may be concerned with the safety of employees and others as well as their own liability. Employees that work on federal contracts are still prohibited from using marijuana;
- Caution employees that they may not be under the influence or possess marijuana in the workplace;
- Consider your current drug testing policy and whether it is still useful in light of changing legislation. Particularly in D.C., ensure that your drug testing policies are in compliance with applicable laws;
- Continue to monitor changes regarding the use of marijuana in state and federal legislation, as well as court opinions.
Call General Counsel PC Today
Since the law is still evolving, the uncertainty around marijuana in the workplace can make setting workplace policies difficult. General Counsel PC can help you examine the nature of your workplace to determine the best policies for your specific business. Our attorneys are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with business owners across Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. Call General Counsel PC at 703-556-0411 today to see how we can help you.