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Changing marijuana laws pose dilemma for companies and employees

Southern California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher is sponsoring legislation that would give employers guidance regarding employees who use marijuana in states where it is legal. The proposed law would allow state marijuana regulations to take precedence over federal law, which still classifies marijuana has an illegal drug.

This would be good news in states like California, where marijuana is legal for medical purposes and in states like Colorado, where it is legal for recreational use as well. The latter state's laws, however, did not prevent a 34-year-old man from being fired because he tested positive for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana.

The former customer service representative at Dish Network has been in a wheelchair since a car crash in his teen left him a quadriplegic. He says that when he was required to take a random drug test in 2010, he told his manager about his use of the drug to minimize muscles spasms. However, he was terminated for having THC in his system.

The employee, who has taken his former employer to court, asserts that he was never under the influence at work, and had no performance issues. An appeals court in the state sided with the company, which contends that it had a right to fire him because the drug is illegal under federal law. The plaintiff is taking the case to the state Supreme Court.

As more states and individual cities legalize the use of marijuana, companies can be caught between federal law and state and local laws. So far, courts in states where marijuana is legal have upheld the rights of businesses to drug test employees for THC.

Although the U.S. Department of Justice has said that the federal government will not overrule state laws on marijuana except in specific circumstances, such as distribution to other states, businesses have been able to successfully use federal law as an excuse for dismissing workers who test positive for THC.

Americans' attitudes about marijuana legalization seem to be rapidly evolving. A recent Gallup Poll showed that for the first time, most people in the U.S. (58 percent) favor legalizing the drug. That's a 10 percent increase in just a year. Thus, this is an issue that will increasingly face workers and employers. Until the issue is settled, perhaps with this proposed legislation, businesses and employees will likely be fighting it out in court on a case-by-case basis.


Source: 
Bloomberg.com, "Pot-Smoking Quadriplegic's Firing Shows Haze Over Rules" Jim Efstathiou, Jr., Nov. 07, 2013

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