Top Oregon court rules against worker on medical marijuana

May 04, 2006

Julia Silverman, Associated Press, The Olympian

The Oregon Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a lower court’s ruling that required employers to make allowances for workers who use medical marijuana.

Judges on the state’s highest court issued a tightly focused ruling concluding that if an employee’s disability can be mitigated through treatment, employers need not make especial allowances for that employee.

But state Supreme Court judges skirted the issue of whether an employee can be disciplined at work for using doctor-approved medical marijuana at home.

The case had been cast as a showdown between an employer’s right to ensure safe workplaces versus a worker’s right to treat their pain with pot.

Several large corporations, including Boise, Idaho-based WinCo Foods, Inc., and Portland-based Freightliner LLC had filed briefs siding with the employer in the case, saying the lower court’s decision could put them at odds with federal drug-free workplace regulations.

The case involves Robert Washburn, a former millwright at the Columbia Forest products plant at Klamath Falls who was fired after urine tests showed traces of drugs in his system.

State-issued cards

Washburn had a state-issued card allowing him to use marijuana to ease leg spasms that disrupted his sleep. About 11,000 Oregonians have received such state-issued cards since voters passed a physician-approved medical marijuana law in 1998.

Washburn used the drug while at home, but the company, which has a policy prohibiting workers from coming to the plant with controlled substances in their system, fired him in 2001.

Washburn sued the company, saying that his medical condition left him legally disabled, requiring his employer to make reasonable accommodations for him in the workplace under the Oregonians with Disabilities Law.

A circuit court dismissed Washburn’s lawsuit, citing a provision in the state medical marijuana law that employers don’t have to “accommodate the medical use of marijuana in the workplace.”

However, the Oregon Court of Appeals disagreed, saying the test results didn’t establish that Washburn had used the drug at work.

In Thursday’s ruling, though, the Supreme Court said Washburn’s impairment did not rise to the level of a disability under state law.

The court found that Washburn was not “disabled” under state law because he had previously successfully treated his condition with painkillers and that Washburn’s employer therefore was not obligated to make allowances for him showing up for work with marijuana in his system.

“This case is really limited,” said Philip Lebenbaum, the Portland attorney who represented Washburn. “(Under the ruling), if you can mitigate your disability, then you are not disabled, like if you are nearsighted and can wear glasses.”

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