California Medical Marijuana Employment Rights Bill Approved by Senate Committee

April 05, 2011
Sacramento, CA -- The State Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 today, approving a bill that would protect medical marijuana patients from discrimination at the workplace. Senate Bill 129, introduced by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) in January is an attempt to clarify the legislative intent of the state's Medical Marijuana Program Act passed in 2003. While clearly establishing a patient's right to work, SB 129 continues to prohibit on-the-job impairment. The bill now moves to the senate floor for an as-of-yet unscheduled vote.

"When Californians approved the compassionate use of cannabis, they never intended for it to apply only to unemployed people," said Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). "With unemployment at record-high rates, we should be doing everything we can to keep productive and responsible members of the workforce in their jobs." Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group and a sponsor of the bill, testified with others in support of SB 129 at last Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

SB 129 would reverse a 2008 California Supreme Court ruling in Ross v. RagingWire that granted employers the right to fire or refuse to hire workers with a physician's recommendation for medical marijuana, a decision that has impacted hundreds of thousands of patients across the state. Within two weeks after the court ruling, then-Assemblymember Mark Leno introduced AB 2279, an identical bill to SB 129, which had strong support from a broad coalition of disability rights, labor, medical, and legal groups. AB 2279 passed both houses of the California legislature in 2008, but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

The bill leaves intact existing state law that prohibits medical marijuana consumption at the workplace or during working hours and exempts from the law "safety-sensitive" positions such as health care providers, school bus drivers, and operators of heavy equipment in order to protect employers from liability and to ensure public safety. Despite the claims of opponents, SB 129 does not violate or impede federal "Drug Free Workplace" laws, which narrowly deal with workplace use and possession.

Peter O’Neal, a former assistant manager at Walgreens, testified at the Senate Judiciary hearing last week about his employment experience as a medical marijuana patient. After finding out O'Neal was a legal patient, Walgreens forced him to participate in drug rehabilitation classes in order to keep his job. Not only was O'Neal eventually fired for his status as a patient, but Walgreens also blocked his effort to collect unemployment benefits. "If this bill had been law a couple of years ago, I'd be a manager at Walgreens right now," testified O'Neal. "Instead, I'm unemployed because of flawed public policy."

Since it began recording instances of employment discrimination in 2005, ASA has received hundreds of such reports from patients across California. "Why must sick Californians be denied their civil rights," said ASA California Director Don Duncan, "and be forced to live with the risk of losing their job due to their choice of medication?"

Further information:
Employment rights legislation SB 129: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/SB129.pdf
Fact Sheet on SB 129: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/SB129_Leno_Fact_Sheet.pdf
Legal briefs and rulings in the Ross v. RagingWire case: http://www.AmericansForSafeAccess.org/Ross

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