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Medical Marijuana and Workers’ Rights

California citizens with a doctor’s note are permitted to grow and possess marijuana, thanks to the state’s 1996 compassionate use law. Medical cannabis dispensaries are licensed and even pay sales tax. So committed is the Bay Area to marijuana rights, reported, that after some San Francisco dispensaries were found inadvertently to be “using the incorrect equivalent conversion between grams and ounces,” the health department reminded operators to give the people “what they pay for.” Last year, San Francisco also passed an ordinance that makes marijuana offenders the “lowest law enforcement priority.”

Even for medical users, however, marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and private employers in California are not required to be tolerant. Because of “well-documented problems” of absenteeism, low productivity, and physical injury, employers exercise their legal right to test workers and, if results are positive for illegal substances, to deny them employment.

Veteran Gary Ross was badly injured while serving in the U.S. Air Force and became eligible for government disability benefits. He suffers chronic pain, which is eased by physician-recommended marijuana treatment. In 2001, Sacramento-based RagingWire Telecommunications  hired Ross, but when his pre-employment drug test came back positive for THC, the company quickly fired him. Ross sued, arguing that he was not consuming marijuana on the job and that state fair-employment laws required “reasonable accommodation” for his disability. Last week, the California Supreme Court upheld the dismissal, noting that the compassionate use law does not “require employers to accommodate marijuana” (see excerpts of the court’s affirmation below and on the following five pages).

San Francisco Assemblyman Mark Leno promptly announced plans for a bill that will prevent such firings in the future. 

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