High times

Striving for a drug-free workplace in states that permit marijuana use

It seems with each election season or legislative session, another state passes a law legalizing marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes or both. Indeed, 28 states have deemed medical marijuana legal, and eight states and the District of Columbia have deemed recreational marijuana use legal. Yet marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The conflict between state and federal law can be particularly vexing for roofing contractors.

State laws

Roofing contractors operating in states where marijuana use is legal often are confused and unsure about whether they can continue to discipline employees for marijuana use in accordance with drug-free workplace policies or need to accommodate marijuana in the workplace. The answer, of course, depends on the specific statutory language. But though certain states have enacted laws legalizing marijuana use, many laws only remove the state criminal penalties associated with marijuana use and do not provide employment protection for employees who use marijuana. Most state marijuana laws are clear employers are not required to permit or accommodate the use of marijuana in the workplace.

For example, in Colorado, employers are not required to permit or accommodate the use, consumption, possession, transfer, display, transportation, sale or growing of marijuana in the workplace. In Washington state and Massachusetts, the law does not regulate the conduct of a private employer or protect an employee from being discharged because of authorized medical marijuana use and, instead, expressly provides employers are not required to accommodate any on-site medical use of marijuana.

California, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont all have similar laws, and the laws in these states provide no employment protection for marijuana users.

Other states provide some protection for employees who use marijuana consistent with state law. For example, Arizona prohibits employers from discriminating when hiring, terminating or imposing any term or condition of employment or otherwise penalizing a person based on the person's cardholder status or because a drug test detects marijuana use. However, Arizona employers are permitted to discipline an employee who uses, possesses or is impaired while on work premises or during employment hours. Arizona also permits employers to remove medical marijuana users from safety-sensitive positions. Roofing contractors in Arizona can be confident they will not be violating the law when enforcing a drug-free workplace policy as it concerns employees whose job requires them to access and work from roofs.

Similar to Arizona, the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania each have laws that provide some manner of protection for employees who are registered medical marijuana users. Most of these laws protect marijuana users from discriminatory action when hiring, terminating, and establishing terms and conditions of employment. Generally, the laws have exceptions that expressly permit an employer to discipline a qualifying medical marijuana user for violating a workplace drug policy or failing a drug test.

Other considerations

Roofing contractors in states that permit recreational use and/or medicinal use also need to be aware of any applicable laws that prohibit an employer from disciplining an employee for legal, off-site conduct. In these states, the threshold question becomes whether an employer can discipline an employee for testing positive for marijuana when marijuana use is legal under state law. This question recently arose in Colorado.

In Coats v. Dish Network, a case before the Colorado Supreme Court, Dish Network was sued by Brandon Coats, a former employee who was terminated for testing positive for marijuana under the company's zero-tolerance drug policy. Notably, Colorado prohibits employers from firing employees for lawful off-duty conduct. Coats argued his marijuana use was legal under state law. Dish Network countered by noting federal law made marijuana illegal. Dish Network also argued Colorado's marijuana law did not necessarily make marijuana use lawful but simply protected individuals from being prosecuted for consuming marijuana. Significantly, the court agreed with both arguments made by Dish Network and ruled a registered medical marijuana user could be fired under an employer's zero-tolerance policy even if the employee was not impaired while at work.

Contractors in states with laws protecting against discrimination of disabled individuals, similar to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), also need to be concerned about illegally discriminating against an employee who possesses a medical marijuana card. Importantly, some state laws addressing medical marijuana use prohibit employers from discriminating against an individual in the hiring process or during employment for simply possessing a medical marijuana card. As it concerns those states with disability laws and marijuana laws, the question remains whether employers will be required to accommodate medical marijuana users engaged in only off-site use or use away from work. Nevada, for example, requires employers to make reasonable accommodations.

Consider an employee who needs to smoke marijuana before or after work to control feelings of nausea resulting from chemotherapy treatments. If the employee is not under the influence of marijuana while at work and exhibits no signs of marijuana use while at work yet tests positive, courts in these states may find accommodating marijuana users and permitting only off-site use qualifies as a reasonable accommodation as long as the individual is not impaired at work. After all, a positive drug test for marijuana may relate to use 30 days before the test.

This issue recently arose before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which held an employer is required to engage in the interactive process regarding potential accommodations and may be required to reasonably accommodate the medical use of marijuana outside of the workplace.

In Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, Cristina Barbuto was terminated for testing positive on a pre-employment drug screen. She tested positive because she was a medical marijuana user suffering from Crohn's disease. In reversing the trial court's dismissal of the discrimination claims, the court held because a waiver of the employer's policy excluding persons who test positive for marijuana could have been a reasonable accommodation, the employer's refusal to engage in the interactive process constituted a denial of the plaintiff's rights not to be fired because of a disability and to require a reasonable accommodation under the state's anti-discrimination law.

We will have to wait and see how the law develops in this area. Indeed, California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington have reached opposite holdings than the Massachusetts high court. And many states have not yet had courts address the issues that arise in the workplace in light of new marijuana use laws. But though it may not be clear in some states whether an employer can discipline an employee for testing positive for marijuana where there are no present signs of impairment, what is clear from a review of all marijuana use laws is it remains legal for an employer to discipline an employee who is impaired at work. Therefore, it becomes critically important for roofing contractors to invest in awareness training for supervisors in the field to be able to identify when an employee is impaired at work.

A supervisor trained to identify someone impaired by marijuana may be the best defense to any wrongful termination claim alleging a wrongful termination for marijuana use permitted under state law. In these instances, being able to argue a supervisor trained in identifying impaired employees did, in fact, identify the terminated employee as impaired, coupled with a positive drug test result, may act to defeat any such wrongful termination claim in states with marijuana use laws that provide some employment protection. In similar disciplinary-related instances involving employment, courts have been clear an employer does not have to be objectively correct when assessing an employee's transgression; rather, it only has to have a good faith belief the employee took the action at issue. As it pertains to marijuana use, it may be a good faith belief that an employee was impaired at work that wins the case for the employer.

Federal law

It is important to remember marijuana use remains illegal under federal law. The federal Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, and there are no exceptions for medicinal use. This has important legal consequences, particularly with regard to claims under the federal ADA.

The ADA prohibits employment discrimination based on someone's disability. Under the ADA, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for the known physical or mental limitations of an employee with a disability to allow that employee to perform the essential functions of the job unless it can show the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on its business.

An employee with a prescription for medical marijuana may claim the underlying medical condition qualifies as a disability. The employee then may ask the employer to accommodate marijuana use as a reasonable accommodation that would allow the employee to perform essential job functions. However, because marijuana is an illegal drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, allowing use of medical marijuana does not qualify as a reasonable accommodation. Moreover, the ADA expressly excludes current users of illegal drugs from its definition of "qualified individuals with a disability," and some courts have said medical marijuana users cannot be protected by the ADA.

Federal contractors in states that permit marijuana use also are concerned with compliance obligations under the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 (DFWA). Much to the surprise of these federal contractors, employing people who use marijuana recreationally or medicinally does not, by itself, violate the DFWA. Nothing in the DFWA governs the use of marijuana outside the covered workplace. Indeed, the DFWA does not even require federal contractors to drug test employees nor does it require a federal contractor to terminate an employee who tests positive for marijuana use.

Rather, the DFWA only requires covered contractors to do the following:

  • Publish and give a policy statement
  • Establish a drug-free awareness program
  • Notify employees they must notify their employer within five calendar days if convicted of a criminal drug violation in the workplace
  • Notify the contracting or granting agency within 10 days after receiving notice that a covered employee has been convicted of a criminal drug violation in the workplace
  • Impose a penalty on any employee convicted of a reportable workplace drug conviction
  • Make an ongoing, good faith effort to maintain a drug-free workplace

Existing policies

In addition to providing awareness training for field supervisors, roofing contractors located in states with marijuana laws should review existing drug- and alcohol-use policies. Many roofing contractors will find policies put in place before state legislation legalizing the use of marijuana now are illegal.

Policies most susceptible to claims of illegal discrimination under state law are those that provide for automatic termination in the event of a positive drug test for an illegal drug. The first question will be whether marijuana qualifies as an illegal drug. Policies such as these should be revised to reflect they apply to drugs illegal under either federal or state law.

Many roofing company zero-tolerance policies may run afoul of the law in states that have marijuana laws with employment protections, such as prohibiting discrimination against applicants or employees for marijuana use outside the workplace though exceptions may exist. Depending on what a given law provides, a zero-tolerance policy may need to be revised to reflect exceptions for registered medical marijuana users.

Because all state laws allowing for marijuana use allow employers to discipline employees who are impaired at work, policies should be revised to reflect signs of impairment. Including signs of impairment in a written policy also helps supervisors determine whether someone will be subject to reasonable suspicion testing. Awareness training regarding the signs of use, abuse and impairment and examples of impairment in a drug testing policy that provides for reasonable suspicion testing may later help defend against a disability discrimination claim from an employee who tests positive on a reasonable suspicion drug test.

What can you do?

A common question from roofing contractors in states with marijuana use laws is how to respond to an individual who discloses his or her marijuana user cardholder status. The first step is to consult the law. Roofing contractors located in states with laws that prohibit discrimination against an individual simply because of his or her cardholder status, such as Rhode Island, cannot refuse to hire on that basis alone. However, in these instances, it is permissible to ask whether an applicant will be able to perform the job without being under the influence at work.

It may be the law prohibits terminating an existing employee on the sole basis of his or her registered status. In those instances, the awareness training for supervisors discussed earlier becomes critically important. Depending on the law, it may be that without evidence of impairment on the job, an employer may not terminate or otherwise punish an employee who merely tests positive for marijuana. Although registered marijuana users should not be put under any special scrutiny, supervisors need to be continually mindful of whether anyone is exhibiting signs of impairment. Roofing contractors are certainly permitted to continue to apply reasonable suspicion drug testing in accordance with existing drug testing policies.

Roofing contractors also need to be sure when disciplinary issues arise, such issues are documented. An individual who possesses a medical marijuana card may argue he or she was illegally discriminated against if the employer argues the individual was terminated for cause. To avoid the appearance of illegal discrimination on the sole basis of marijuana cardholder status, it is imperative the employer has the documentation that supports for cause termination.

In the weeds

As these issues concerning marijuana use work their way through the court system, further clarity will be available to employers whose employees use marijuana in accordance with applicable state laws. However, because laws concerning marijuana use continue to develop, it is important roofing contractors consult experienced legal counsel before taking any adverse action against an employee with a prescription for medical marijuana or card that permits recreational marijuana use.

Philip J. Siegel is a partner with Atlanta-based law firm Hendrick, Phillips, Salzman & Siegel.


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