California Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Employers' Obligations to Employees Who Use Medical Marijuana

On November 6, 2007, the California Supreme Court heard long-awaited arguments in the closely watched "medical marijuana" case of Ross v. RagingWire Telecommunications, Inc.  Gary Ross, a network administrator, was terminated eight days into his employment after testing positive for marijuana.  Ross challenged the termination because he had a doctor's recommendation that he use marijuana to relieve chronic back pain.  Ross has alleged that because his use of marijuana was lawful under California's Compassionate Use law, his employer was obligated under state law to accommodate his disability by permitting him to use marijuana as recommended by his physician.  Ross’s attorneys also argued that his discharge violated California's public policy, including California’s constitutionally created right to privacy.

Marijuana use is illegal under federal law.  California has effectively “decriminalized” marijuana use by adopting the Compassionate Use Act of 1996.  The Act allows individuals to purchase, possess, cultivate, and use small quantities of marijuana for medicinal purposes without fear of prosecution by state officials.  Federal officials may prosecute those who use marijuana pursuant to the state law, but as a practical matter, enforcement efforts are much more likely to be focused on cultivation and distribution networks.  The statutory language makes it clear that employees may not possess or use marijuana at work – leading Ross’s attorneys to argue that by implication, the law intended that employees be permitted to use the drug outside of work.

RagingWire’s attorney argued that employers have an interest in ensuring that employees are not using drugs illegally, and should not have to tolerate off-work drug use by workers simply because state law considers such use lawful.  These arguments were persuasive in the lower courts, and several Justices participating in the oral argument appeared to agree that the federal-state law conflict posed a problem for employers.

Ross’s attorneys pointed out, however, that RagingWire had no obligation to drug test Mr. Ross under federal law, and that there was little risk that the Company could be held liable for accommodating his off-job drug use.  In addition, California public policy strongly supports an individual’s right to employment absent discrimination on the basis of disability, and further contains provisions protecting individuals’ rights to make basic decisions regarding their medical care.  Ross’ attorneys further argued that the California Constitution’s privacy protections also militated in favor of Ross, absent evidence that he was impaired by his marijuana use while at work.

Significantly, Ross’s advocates did not challenge an employer's right to conduct the drug test in the first place, and both agreed that the California Supreme Court's decision in Loder v. City of Glendale remains good law.  The Loder decision established that California employers may conduct workplace drug testing in circumstances that do not unduly intrude upon an individual's right to privacy.  The opinion discusses at length the various ways in which illegal drug use adversely affects employers, and concludes that attempts to detect such use may be tolerable incursions upon an employee's right to autonomy privacy.  The fact that medicinal use of marijuana is now technically not unlawful as a matter of California law begs the question of whether, and to what extent, employers must accommodate that use like any other prescription medication which may have adverse effects on an individual's behavior or job performance.

Ultimately, many of the questions raised by the Justices were not adequately addressed by Ross’s attorneys:  If the test is lawful under California law, and the drug use is arguably lawful under California law, what, if anything, must the employer do to accommodate such use?  Can permitting the off-duty use of marijuana ever be deemed a reasonable accommodation?  As a practical matter, RagingWire had not considered whether to accommodate Ross’s marijuana use, and neither side appeared willing to compromise its position regarding Ross’s right to use marijuana.  Interestingly, the attorneys for Ross agreed that an employee who came to work under the influence of drugs could be disciplined by his employer, but failed to explain the difference between a positive drug test and evidence of impairment.  If that line of reasoning is adopted, it may have the curious result of barring employers from refusing to hire individuals who use marijuana pursuant to the Compassionate Use Act, but permitting employers to discharge such individuals for testing positive after a workplace accident or other incident suggestive of impairment.

Ultimately, court-watchers came away with no clear sense of how the California Supreme Court might rule.  Given both parties’ support for the Loder case, however, it appears unlikely that the privacy analysis applied to workplace drug testing, which balances the needs of the employer against the privacy interests of the employee, will be revised.

If, however, the California Supreme Court rules that RagingWire and other employers must accommodate employee disabilities by permitting the use of marijuana as authorized by state law, we can expect to see a significant effect on workplace drug testing policies.  As drafted, the Compassionate Use law does not require individuals to obtain a prescription to use marijuana – deliberately so, because doctors who prescribe marijuana forfeit their federally-issued licenses to prescribe narcotics.  Moreover, obtaining a recommendation to use marijuana to treat anything from headaches to allergies is relatively simple – certain medical practices advertise that would-be patients will be refunded the cost of their office visit if they do not leave with a recommendation to use marijuana.  As a result, after nearly every positive marijuana test, California employers would be forced to ignore test results unless the employer also had evidence that the employee or applicant would be impaired while working.  Employees subject to testing as a matter of federal law – for example, transportation workers – would continue to be barred from using marijuana and performing regulated work, but employers would otherwise have little guidance in making decisions about the likely effect of the individual’s drug use on workplace safety.  It seems certain that a ruling in favor of Ross, therefore, would lead to an immediate petition for review before the United States Supreme Court.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.