Court Rules Medical Cannabis Use Not Protected Under ADA

Since states began decriminalizing medical cannabis more than 20 years ago, there have been long standing questions about workplace protections. In other words, can employees be discriminated against or disciplined for using medical cannabis? In some cases, yes. A recent court case handed down in Vermont demonstrates as much.

The case involves a man fired from his public sector job after failing a random drug test that revealed marijuana in his system. Despite possessing a state-issued medical cannabis card, essentially giving him the right to possess and consume medical cannabis, he lost his job. The man unsuccessfully sued his employer.

Medical Cannabis and the ADA

Attorneys for the plaintiff argued that his consumption of medical cannabis was covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Based on ADA language, they reasoned that the plaintiff’s employer was required to make reasonable accommodations for his medical condition. He should not have been disciplined in any way for medical cannabis consumption.

The federal court disagreed with that argument. The court cited the fact that marijuana is still illegal as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). And because the ADA is federal legislation, it is subject to other federal statutes and regulations. The court reasoned that the ADA does not make exceptions for illegal substances used under the supervision of a doctor.

Marijuana is classified under Schedule I because it is believed to have little to no medical value. Therefore, federal law does not recognize a doctor’s choice to recommend medical cannabis or supervise its consumption. The ADA does not apply in this case.

How the States Handle It

At the current time, Vermont has no worker protection rules applying to medical cannabis consumers. Who knows? That may change as a result of this case. But for now, it appears as though the plaintiff is out of luck. That may not have been the case in other states.

A dozen or so of the states with medical cannabis programs have also enacted rules protecting some employees. Utah is a good example. According to Salt Lake City’s Beehive Farmacy, public sector employers in Utah are required to treat medical cannabis like any other prescription medication.

Public sector employees in Utah cannot be discriminated against or otherwise disciplined for using medical cannabis. There are two exceptions to this rule:

  1. Circumstances under which cannabis consumption could pose a significant safety risk or financial loss; and
  2. Circumstances under which an employer could lose federal funding, licensing, or certain benefits for not taking action against cannabis users.

A perfect example is allowing police officers to continue in their roles while using cannabis. Under federal law, it is illegal for a marijuana user to possess or own a firearm. Therefore, Utah police departments are exempted from the antidiscrimination law meant to protect workers – at least in relation to hiring and retaining police officers.

Protections for Private Workers

It should be noted that both the Vermont lawsuit and Utah’s anti-discrimination rules apply only to public sector employment. Private employers in most states still have the legal right to establish and maintain their own drug testing policies. However, some states are looking at forcing private employers to follow anti-discrimination rules as well.

For now, the federal government is not willing to budge on marijuana’s legal status. As long as that remains the case, the ADA is an insufficient defense against public employers who discriminate against or discipline employees found using medical cannabis. That ADA does not apply to substances deemed illicit under the CSA. For right or wrong, this is the deal.

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