This blog post is the fifth in a series of articles discussing the current state of the law in New York regarding medical marijuana. To read the latest post in the series, Medical Marijuana 104: Responsibilities of Health Insurers, click here.
As you may recall from our first post in this series, medical marijuana in New York was legalized through the passage of the New York Compassionate Care Act (“CCA”) in 2014. The CCA also created new anti-discrimination protections for medical marijuana users. Namely, the CCA provides that patients who are certified for medical marijuana use shall not be subject to “disciplinary action by a business” for exercising their rights to use medical marijuana. The CCA further provides that being a certified patient is the equivalent of having a disability for purposes of the New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”).
Together the CCA and NYSHRL provide that New York employers with four or more employees are prohibited from terminating or refusing to employ an individual on the basis of his/her status as a certified medical marijuana patient. In addition, employers must provide reasonable accommodations to certified patients as a result of his or her disability. Accordingly, an employer may be subject to a discrimination claim if it fires or disciplines an employee for lawfully consuming marijuana under the CCA.
The CCA does contain two exceptions to the above general rules. First, the CCA does “not bar the enforcement of [an employer’s] policy prohibiting an employee from performing his or her employment duties while impaired by a controlled substance.” Second, the Act does “not require any person or entity to do any act that would put the person or entity in violation of federal law or cause it to lose a federal contract or funding.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which became law in 1990, is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.
Marijuana in any form and for any use is illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”). The ADA provides that a person’s illegal use of drugs is grounds for denying employment or firing from employment. The ADA defines “illegal use of drugs” as follows: “the use of drugs, the possession or distribution of which is unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act. Such term does not include the use of a drug taken under supervision by a licensed health care professional, or other uses authorized by the Controlled Substances Act or other provisions of Federal law.”
For the most parts court have, to date, agreed that, because the CSA does not allow medicinal use of marijuana, a medical professional cannot legally, as a matter of federal law, supervise medical marijuana use so as to bring an employee under the ADA’s protection. See, e.g., James v. City of Costa Mesa, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53009, at *8-11 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 30, 2010); Barber v. Gonzales, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 37411, at *2-5 (E.D. Wash. July 1, 2005); Johnson v. Columbia Falls Aluminum Co., 2009 WL 865308, at *4 (Mont. Mar. 31, 2009).
Case law in this area is developing and uncertainty remains as state laws clash with federal requirements.
In 2015, for example, the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously held that employers may still terminate employees who use medical marijuana – even though medical marijuana use is specifically authorized by the Colorado Constitution and Colorado law protects employees’ lawful off-duty conduct. The Court held that marijuana use (whether for medicinal or recreational use) remains unlawful under federal law and therefore medical marijuana use cannot be deemed “lawful” under the state’s off-duty conduct law.
On the other hand, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court provided that the plaintiff, a patient who qualified for the medical use of marijuana and had been terminated from her employment because she tested positive for marijuana, could seek a civil remedy against her employer through claims of handicap discrimination in violation of Massachusetts laws.
Similarly, the Superior Court of Rhode Island in 2017 held that an employer’s enforcement of its neutral drug testing policy to deny employment to an applicant because she held a medical marijuana card violated the anti-discrimination provisions of the state medical marijuana law.
In New York, the Taxi & Limousine Commission (“TLC”) filed a petition seeking the revocation of the respondent taxi driver’s TLC Driver License because the driver tested positive for marijuana. New York City’s Office of Administrative Trials & Hearings (“OATH”) disagreed and recommended that the petition be dismissed, finding that revocation solely because of the driver’s status as a certified medical marijuana patient would violate New York City and State laws. The TLC adopted the OATH decision.
In our next post we’re going to continue our review of important parties that play a role in the medical marijuana industry. To be sure not to miss the article when it comes out we invite you to subscribe to the Farrell Fritz New York Health Law Blog.