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As legalized pot spreads, employees need to be careful

It's probably safe to say that at least a few of the Southern Californians who traveled to Denver for the Chargers-Broncos playoff game enjoyed a little of Colorado's legal recreational marijuana, now available in dispensaries, as long as they had a friend with a Colorado ID who could purchase it for them. However, that weekend recreational use could have repercussions to their employment, whether current or potential, weeks or even months later.

The active ingredient in marijuana can be found in a person's system for as long as three months after ingesting it (compared to just hours for alcohol). The way that most employers test for drugs does not differentiate between whether the drug was consumed an hour ago or a week ago. Further, evidence of marijuana use remains in hair follicles even longer than in urine.

While "medical marijuana" has been legal in California for some time now, it has still has been grounds for termination. However, Californians who use marijuana for a genuine medical issue may have grounds to file a complaint or lawsuit claiming discrimination if they are fired for testing positive for the substance. As recreational marijuana use becomes legal in individual states (Colorado, Washington and potentially Alaska, where it will soon be a ballot measure), people who use it for recreational purposes only may have little, if any, recourse.

Some types of California businesses have particularly strict drug-testing policies, in part because our state has "some of the strictest standards of all states" when it comes to injuries incurred in the workplace. This includes injuries suffered by an employee or someone who happens to be at the location. One Southern California-based human resources professional noted that businesses from landscapers to child care facilities perform drug tests on potential or active employees, and employees can be terminated for a positive result. Of course, companies where workers are operating heavy machinery or driving vehicles are particularly vigilant.

The momentum is building to make marijuana legal without a doctor's authorization in our state. Therefore, California employers, legislators and legal experts will no doubt be looking at how Colorado businesses maintain their standards for drug testing without decimating their workforces.

Source: The Press-Enterprise, "WORKPLACE: Legal pot could be big employment headache" Jack Katzanek, Jan. 11, 2014

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