Laws for Medical Marijuana in California Workplaces

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Though the proper use of medical marijuana is legal in California, an employee can still be fired for its use. This lesson explains the laws regarding the use of medical marijuana in California workplaces.

Medical Marijuana

Marijuana is a hot topic these days. Four states and the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, while another twenty have legalized marijuana for medical use. With half the country allowing the use of marijuana, savvy employers need to know the laws regarding its use in the workplace.

California's Compassionate Use Act makes it one of the 20 states allowing the legal use of medical marijuana. This act keeps a user from being prosecuted for the use of marijuana as long as that user has a valid physician's prescription for the therapeutic use of the drug. States that follow this policy are sometimes known as 'decriminalization only' states.

However, all possession and use of marijuana is still criminal under federal law. In fact, the federal Controlled Substances Act, or CSA, classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Schedule I drugs are considered to be the most dangerous kind, with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

This conflict of laws allows California employers to prohibit the use of marijuana - even medical marijuana. Let's take a closer look at the laws affecting the use of medical marijuana in California's workplaces.

Drug-Free Workplace

Through executive order and the Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988, the federal government established drug-free policies for federal employees, federal grantees, and some federal contractors. Any use or possession of illegal substances is banned in the workplace, and federal employees can be terminated for using drugs even when off-duty. The main goal is to promote health and wellness for employees, while maintaining a safe and productive workplace.

Many states have followed suit, instituting their own drug-free workplace laws. California's Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1990 requires any employer with a contract or grant for property or services from any California agency to verify that it institutes a drug-free workplace. In general, these employers must:

  • Notify employees that the unlawful manufacture, distribution, possession, or use of controlled substances is prohibited in the workplace
  • Establish a drug-free awareness program informing employees of the dangers regarding drug abuse in the workplace and the available drug counseling and rehabilitation programs
  • Inform employees of the penalties to be imposed for violations of the drug-free workplace policies

Because marijuana is considered to be an 'unlawful controlled substance' under federal law, it is not exempt from the California Drug-Free Workplace Act, even when used for medicinal purposes.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Medical marijuana users have challenged the various prohibitions on, and obstacles to, their use. One challenge comes by way of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in their employment and certain other activities.

Though California has yet to see an ADA challenge regarding the workplace use of medical marijuana, decisions in similar cases seem to lean in favor of employers. California courts have held that the ADA does not protect against discrimination on the basis of medical marijuana use, even when that use is legal under state law. That's because the ADA only prohibits discrimination against any 'qualified individual with a disability'. The ADA's own legal definition of a 'qualified individual' specifically excludes anyone who actively uses an illegal drug.

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