Oregon Supreme Court considering medical marijuana status in the workplace

September 15, 2005

Charles E. Beggs, Associated Press

The Oregon Supreme Court says it will review an appellate court ruling that suggests employers make allowances for workers who use medical marijuana.

Robert Washburn, a former millwright at the Columbia Forest products plant at Klamath Falls, had a state-issued card allowing him to use marijuana to ease neck and muscle pain that disrupted his sleep. But the company, which prohibited workers from coming to the plant with controlled substances in their system, fired Washburn in 2001 after he failed several urine tests.

Washburn sued the company, claiming it should have made an allowance for his disability.

A circuit court dismissed the 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."

The appeals court disagreed, saying the test results didn't establish that Washburn had used the drug at work. Moreover, the appeals court said the lower court should decide whether, under the circumstances of the case, Washburn's employer should have had to allow his medical marijuana use.

The Supreme Court is to hear arguments in the case on Nov. 7.

Business groups say employers are highly concerned over the prospect of having to tolerate workers who use drugs.

J.L. Wilson, Oregon director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said Wednesday that the appellate court's "absurd" ruling "clearly took away the ability of employers to manage workplace practices and keep people out of harm's way,"

But David Fidanque, executive director of the Oregon arm of the American Civil Liberties Union, said employers should have to make allowances for workers using marijuana legally to relieve medical problems.

"It's important for the law to understand that medical marijuana patients are disabled Oregonians who are entitled to accommodations like other disabled people," he said.

Businesses, however, fear the appeals court ruling opens the door for unreasonable requirements.

"I don't think even proponents of medical marijuana thought we would have to accommodate it in the workplace," said Lisa Trussell of Associated Oregon Industries, a major business lobbying group.

"An employee could take a break in some parking lot and smoke medical marijuana and come back to work, and unless I could prove impairment, I couldn't do anything about it," she said.

Ten other states also have medical marijuana laws. They are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Vermont and Washington state. Arizona has a law allowing medical marijuana, but no active program.

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