California Employers Can Fire Medical Marijuana Users

Published: Jan 25, 2008

By Kathy Robertson (Sacramento Business Journal) -- The California Supreme Court ruled 5-2 Thursday that an employer can fire an employee who tests positive for marijuana, even if the worker has a note from a doctor stating the drug is needed for medical reasons.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed in 2002 by Sacramento attorney Stewart Katz on behalf of Gary Ross, a former systems administrator at RagingWire Telecommunications who suffers from chronic lower back pain and muscle spasms.

Ross first tried to treat his condition with muscle relaxants and traditional pain medications, but when these conventional medications failed to provide relief, his doctor recommended marijuana. Although Ross was a qualified patient under the Compassionate Use Act, approved by voters in 1996, he was terminated from his job at RagingWire in 2001 after a drug test showed detectable amounts of marijuana in his system.

He sued in 2002 for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, employment discrimination and breach of contract -- and lost at the trial court and appeals court levels before petitioning for review by the state's highest court.

The majority opinion Thursday noted the Compassionate Use Act makes no reference to employment law, so the court cannot rule on those grounds. The wrongful termination claim doesn't work either, the court said, because the employer's action can't be against public policy when marijuana use is against federal law, even with a prescription.

"Today's decision is a victory not only for employers, but for workers and customers of companies who want to be assured of a drug-free workplace," Deborah LaFetra, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said in a statement. "Drug-using employees are known to have impaired abilities, both mental and physical, that can alter their judgment and other necessary skills for their work. This decision promotes employer efforts to make safe, drug-free workplaces."

Ross did not use marijuana during working hours and his private use of it at home to treat chronic pain in no way impaired his ability to perform his job, court documents allege.

Plaintiff's attorney Katz worries the court ruling will be misinterpreted by businesses as a mandate to fire workers who use marijuana legitimately under the Compassionate Use Act.

"There is not an obligation to get rid of someone who can do their job," he said.

It will now be up to state lawmakers to clarify application of the law is appropriate in an employment setting, Katz said.

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