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Massachusetts Employers May Need to Accommodate Medical Marijuana Users

By Michael J. Lorden

Massachusetts and 28 states have legalized medical marijuana, and an additional 16 states permit “low THC” use. Federal law, however, still outlaws marijuana use, regardless of ailment or disability. In light of these conflicting laws, how should an employer handle a medical marijuana user who fails an employer’s drug test? While courts in New Mexico, California, and Colorado have held that employers are not required to accept an employee’s medical marijuana usage, a recent Massachusetts decision shows that employers should proceed with caution. 

On July 17, 2017, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that employers may be required to allow disabled employees to use medical marijuana outside of work. In Barbuto v. Advantage Sales and Marketing, LLC, the plaintiff used medical marijuana at home two to three nights a week to treat her Crohn’s disease, as permitted under Massachusetts’ Medical Marijuana Act. Subsequently, the plaintiff accepted an entry-level position and was presented with the employer’s required drug test. The plaintiff disclosed her medical marijuana use, provided a doctor’s certification, and stated she would not use marijuana before or during work.

Initially, the employer stated that failing the drug test “should not be a problem,” but then terminated the plaintiff when the test came back positive. The plaintiff filed suit against the employer for disability discrimination under Massachusetts law (among other claims), which the trial court dismissed, and the plaintiff appealed. 

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that she was a “handicapped person” due to her Crohn’s disease, and that she was capable of performing the essential functions of her job with a reasonable accommodation – i.e., using marijuana at home. The employer argued that the accommodation was unreasonable because using marijuana violated federal law. 

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts found that using medical marijuana was a permissible accommodation when “medical marijuana is the most effective medication for the employee’s debilitating medical condition, and where any alternative medication whose use would be permitted by the employer’s drug policy would be less effective.” The court noted that the potential for violating federal law was inconsequential because the “only person at risk of Federal criminal prosecution for her possession of medical marijuana is the employee.” Thus, the plaintiff should have been permitted to pursue her disability discrimination claim.  

The court cautioned that its decision did not mean that the plaintiff would ultimately prevail on her claim. The employer still had an opportunity to prove that using marijuana would impose an undue hardship on performance or safety, or would cause the employer to violate contractual or statutory obligations. 

Employers with employees in multiple states would do well to familiarize themselves with the current plethora of marijuana laws, as states such as Arizona, Delaware, and Minnesota provide that an employee cannot be terminated for testing positive for marijuana, so long as that employee is in possession of a valid medical marijuana card. As the court in Massachusetts made clear, running afoul of state marijuana laws could expose an employer to liability.