'Medicinal' Marijuana and Liability

Article published on 12th June 2008

Tension is brewing between state and federal law in the USA concerning employment rights and the use of prescription marijuana ('weed'), which is permitted by state law in California.

Having sustained a back injury while working for the United States Air Force, Gary Ross, 46, was prescribed 'medicinal' marijuana by his doctor inn 1999 to treat the persistent back pain he alleges to suffer from.

The problem arose for Ross in 2001 when he tested positive during a routine drug test carried out by the company he worked for, RagingWire Telecommunications. He was fired. When he appealed, the California Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that the medicinal marijuana legislation passed in 1996 did not address employment law.

Under US Federal law marijuana is an illegal drug, and so businesses and companies have the right to fire anyone who tests positive during a drug test - even though trace elements of marijuana can be found in the blood stream for several days after its effects wear off.

Ross, who is but one of more than 250,000 'medicinal' marijuana users in the state, contests that he shouldn't have to fight for the right to use the drugs prescribed to him legitimately by his doctor as treatment for a real condition. No one is arguing about whether an employee can be under the influence of illegal drugs - or 'stoned' - while working. Obviously they cannot. The debate is centred around the fact that even trace elements of marijuana found in the blood is legal grounds for being fired from work on the spot.

Despite Ross' insistence that the authorities "apply the science" and accept that marijuana is a viable medication like any other, and also the insistence of Ross' lawyer, Stewart Katz, who ha stated that the ruling amounts to the courts forcing people to choose between taking medicine and working, Marti Fisher of the California Chamber of Commerce has said allowing 'medicinal' marijuana users to continue at work without challenge generates "a liability that our members don't necessarily want to take on."

She went on to say that employers should remain free to choose for themselves whether they deem a frequent marijuana user, for whatever reason, a suitable and safe employee: "We really shouldn't be forcing employers to hire illegal drug users", because doing so would increase the odds of an oversight in which an essentially 'stoned' worker would go undetected.

Besides the immediate risks that may cause in certain industries, introducing permissibility for 'medicinal' marijuana users to work with impunity, opponents to any change in legislation point out that doing so would damage drug-free workplace policies, reduce the prospects of obtaining federal contracts and create a rise in insurance premium rates.

The debate rages on.

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