California Justices Put Limits on Medical Marijuana Law
January 24, 2008
Jesse McKinley, New York Times
In the latest setback for advocates of medical marijuana in California, the State Supreme Court ruled Thursday that employers were within their rights to fire employees who fail drug tests.
The ruling, a 5-to-2 decision that affirmed the findings of lower state courts, involved a former Air Force mechanic, Gary Ross, who injured his lower back in a fall off an airplane wing in 1983. In 1999, a doctor, acting under the state’s Compassionate Use Act, prescribed marijuana in an effort to relieve Mr. Ross’s pain.
The act, approved by voters in 1996, legalized the use and sale of marijuana to those with a chronic illness or infirmity.
Two years after he began using the drug, Mr. Ross was fired from a job as a systems administrator with a telecommunications company after failing a drug test.
Mr. Ross filed suit, contending that his dismissal violated state laws barring wrongful termination and discrimination based on disability.
But the state’s highest court firmly rejected that argument on Thursday, saying that the act deals solely with criminal prosecution, not terms of employment.
“The Compassionate Use Act does not eliminate marijuana’s potential for abuse or the employer’s legitimate interest in whether an employee uses the drug,” Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative, free-enterprise group, praised the decision as a victory for “safe, drug-free workplaces.”
“You don’t want employers to be trying to figure who is impaired and who is not,” said Deborah J. La Fetra, a lawyer for the group.
“They need to have a bright-line, no-drugs-in-the-workplace rule.”
Advocates of medical marijuana said Thursday that they hoped the Legislature would provide medical marijuana users some workplace protections, and Assemblyman Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, said he planned to take up the cause.
Mr. Ross, now 46 and a host at outdoor camps in the Sacramento area, said he never intended to use marijuana on the job, only to relieve pain and help him sleep. But he said he was not surprised at the judges’ ruling.
“Their mind is stuck in 1967,” he said in a telephone interview. “They just say, ‘My mind was made up in the 1960s, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.’ ”