Medical Marijuana: Fired Employee Files First Challenge To New Law

In January, we reported on the impact California’s Proposition 215, the Medical Marijuana Initiative, will have on the workplace. Prop. 215 allows marijuana use if it is recommended, orally or in writing, by a physician. But there are many unanswered questions, including when the use of medical marijuana can be grounds for termination and how it affects drug screening programs. Now, the law is being put to its first reported test by an employee who was fired after testing positive for marijuana use in a random drug test.

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Marijuana Eased Glaucoma Pain

Rod Dunaway, a heavy equipment operator for Orange County, used marijuana for 15 years to ease eye pain from glaucoma. He tried conventional drugs, but they weren’t effective. So he smoked a small amount of pot at night before going to bed. The pain relief lasted throughout the following day, and he was able to perform his job effectively. He never smoked before or during work hours and he didn’t tell the county about his use of marijuana off the job.

Worker Fights Dismissal After Random Drug Test

In 1995, the county began random drug testing under federal regulations covering operators of certain types of commercial and industrial vehicles. When Dunaway tested positive, he was suspended for 30 days and told he would lose his job if he tested positive again.

Dunaway gave up marijuana and again tried conventional drugs, but they still didn’t work. Last October -a month before Prop. 215 was approved by the voters-he got an oral recommendation for marijuana from his doctor. Once the initiative passed, he thought he was on safe ground. But in February, he tested positive again during a random screening and was fired.

Now Dunaway is fighting his dismissal through his union. If he fails to win his job back, he plans to sue the county.

It’s important to note that Prop. 215 does not protect people who use medical marijuana if it could endanger the safety of others. Consequently, because Dunaway’s job involved operating heavy machinery, the outcome of his case could be affected by whether his marijuana use interfered with his job performance.

But Dunaway faces other, perhaps bigger, obstacles. Despite Prop. 215, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Employees who operate certain commercial and industrial vehicles are still subject to federal drug testing rules that bar continued operation of those vehicles by workers who test positive. Therefore, Dunaway may have trouble getting his job back as long as he continues to use marijuana.

Murky Law Awaits Clarification

The ultimate impact of Prop. 215 in the workplace remains to be seen. Legislation has been introduced in Sacramento to clarify some aspects of the initiative, but how far it will go in providing guidance to employers is not clear. We’ll keep you posted.


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