Although marijuana is classified as an illegal drug under federal law, a majority of states have now legalized its use in one form or another. This rapidly evolving legal landscape presents new challenges for employers, particularly those with offices and employees in several states. Employers must balance complying with often divergent federal and state laws, maintaining a safe work environment, and protecting employees’ rights. Although difficult at times, there are steps employers can take to help successfully navigate this legal minefield.
Maintain a Safe Workplace
Workplace accidents can have significant effects on multiple areas of a business, including insurance costs, personal injury claims, third-party claims, and employee satisfaction and productivity. An employee’s impairment from drugs or alcohol can seriously increase the risk of injury to persons and damage to property. Accordingly, most employers have zero-tolerance policies that ban the use of alcohol and illegal substances. Although zero-tolerance policies typically permit an employee to avoid adverse employment actions by disclosing the use of prescription drugs prior to a positive drug test, these policies otherwise prohibit the off-site consumption of alcohol or drugs that will result in a positive test. The legalization of medical marijuana in a number of states has made maintaining a zero-tolerance policy more difficult.
In some states, employers must accommodate an employee’s use of medical marijuana. For example, in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co., LLC, a Connecticut federal court held that a federal contractor could not enforce its zero-tolerance drug policy against a medical marijuana user. Similarly, Oklahoma law prohibits employers from discriminating or punishing an employee based on the employee’s status as a medical marijuana card holder or a positive drug test for marijuana or its components unless the employer would lose a benefit under federal law or regulations. Although these statutes do not prohibit employers from disciplining employees who consume marijuana, or are under its influence, while on the job, it may be difficult to determine when an employee is actually impaired and a drug test is warranted. This difficulty can give rise to liability for discriminatory drug testing or wrongful employment actions in instances where a contractor is mistaken.
Other states that have legalized medical marijuana do not require accommodation of employees’ use. In California, for example, an employer can dismiss an employee who tests positive for marijuana and its components. Likewise, under Ohio law, employers are not prohibited from refusing to hire, discharging, or disciplining a person because of the use or possession of medical marijuana, nor are they prohibited from establishing and enforcing a zero-tolerance drug policy.
Between these two ends of the accommodation spectrum, a number of states’ laws provide for varying levels of accommodation for employees’ medical marijuana use. In Illinois, for example, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees and job applicants who qualify as a medical marijuana patient unless the accommodation would result in the violation of a federal law or the loss of a federal benefit. Nonetheless, Illinois employers may still impose reasonable limitations on the consumption of medical marijuana and enforce zero-tolerance and drug-free workplace policies as long the policies are applied in a non-discriminatory manner. Other states, such as Delaware, Nevada, New York, and West Virginia, have similarly varied degrees of required accommodation.
To help navigate these nuanced laws, employers, especially those with a multi-state footprint, should develop a well-defined drug policy and administer a drug testing program in a non-discriminatory manner.
Develop a Well-Defined Drug Policy
Developing a well-defined company policy on marijuana use can minimize the risk of harm to persons and property, and decrease the likelihood that drug testing and disciplinary action arising from marijuana intoxication will open the door to liability for adverse employment decisions. At a minimum, employers should ensure that a company drug policy:
- Defines the terms “marijuana,” “cannabis,” or any other derivation of the drug. Simply prohibiting the use of “illegal drugs” can create ambiguity because of marijuana’s legal status in various jurisdictions.
- Indicates that the use of marijuana, whether recreationally or on the job, is strictly prohibited.
- Articulates drug testing policies and procedures (including penalties for failing a drug test).
- Educates employees on clinical issues relating to marijuana, such as its effects on the body, the length of time it can continue to impair cognitive and physiological functions, and the potential impacts on workplace safety and performance.
- Is included in recruiting and new-hire onboarding materials to ensure notice to the individual.
Consistently Administer a Drug Testing Program
Once an employer adopts a drug policy, it is critical that drug tests are conducted uniformly for all employees. Failure to do so can subject an employer to liability for discrimination claims that arise from adverse employment actions.
If an employee tests positive for marijuana, the recourse available to an employer can vary greatly under federal and state laws. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) currently does not shield an employee from adverse employment actions for using marijuana to treat a disability, even if the employee refrains from using medical marijuana while on the job. The ADA exempts from its scope the “illegal use of drugs” and defines that term to include any substances that are unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act, which currently lists “marijuana” as a banned substance. As a result, at least under the ADA, employers can terminate an employee who tests positive for marijuana, even if that employee is disabled, prescribed medical marijuana, and only uses marijuana on his or her own time. Note, however, that under the ADA, if an employee discloses a disability and requests an accommodation, an employer is required to consider reasonable accommodations, which could include transfer to a non-safety sensitive job (where the marijuana use may not pose a safety concern) or temporary leave during treatment.
By contrast, as discussed above, some states require an employer to accommodate an employee’s use of medical marijuana and prohibit an employer from terminating an employee for a failed drug test for marijuana use. Employers should be mindful of the potential for conflict between their own drug testing policies and requirements mandated by federal or state laws. If there are questions as to what actions an employer can take against an employee for failing a drug test, the advice of legal counsel should be sought.
The Measure of Success
An effective drug policy decreases hazards and promotes an accident-free work environment. While state and federal laws meant to promote this goal may seem straight forward when read in isolation, problems arise when these laws overlap or conflict with one another. The growing number of states legalizing marijuana use, and the nuanced differences between laws, will only amplify this problem. Although all employers need to implement well-defined policies and procedures, it is particularly important that those employers operating in any of the 30 plus states in which marijuana is now legal in some form take time to review current policies and evaluate the need for changes to ensure employee safety and reduce company risk. If you have questions about this rapidly changing legal issue, you should contact an attorney with experience in this emerging area of the law.