Ninth Circuit Agrees with Montana: Employees Can be Fired for Off-Work Marijuana Use
Medical marijuana is legal in Montana. Unfortunately, that does not prevent local employers from terminating workers for legal, off-work use of marijuana in the state.
In 2010, while already employed by Charter Communications, LLC, Lance Carlson was issued a medical marijuana card under Montana Medical Marijuana Act to treat chronic low back and stomach pain. The medical marijuana card allowed Mr. Carlson to legally use marijuana to treat the conditions. In 2016, Mr. Carlson was involved in a work-related motor-vehicle accident. A urinalysis that followed the accident tested positive for THC. Mr. Carlson was promptly terminated as a result of the drug test.
Mr. Carlson initially brought suit against his former employer in Montana state court, alleging the former employer had wrongfully terminated him in violation of the Discrimination Under the Montana Human Rights Act— specifically, that his employer had discriminated against him because of a disability. The case was removed to Federal District Court. Charter Communications quickly moved for a motion to dismiss arguing that the Montana Marijuana Act allowed them to terminate Mr. Carlson for his medical marijuana use. Mr. Carlson appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit.
The Ninth Circuit, in an unpublished opinion, upheld the district court’s dismissal. The Ninth Circuit specifically relied on the carve-out of Montana’s medical marijuana act that states employers are allowed to prohibit employees from using marijuana. Mr. Carlson challenged that exact regulation as unconstitutional. However, the Ninth Circuit determined it was constitutional because it was “rationally related to Montana’s legitimate state interest in providing careful regulation of access to an otherwise illegal substance for the limited use by persons for whom there is little or no other effective alternative…”
Given the general trend for acceptance of marijuana, the Ninth Circuit decision is disappointing, even though it is unpublished and therefore sets no legal precedent. However, the problem does not generally lie with the Ninth Circuit, but instead with Montana’s state law. Now is the time to lobby Montana officials to have the Montana Medical Marijuana Act revised to protect employee’s off-work medical marijuana use.
Montana is not alone in allowing employers to terminate employee for their legal off-work use of marijuana. Oregon, similarly, has a statute that does not require employers to accommodate employees’ off-work use of medical marijuana. Way back in 2010, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the statute prohibiting disability discrimination in employment does not protect medical marijuana users. Washington’s laws do not require employers to accommodate employee’s medical marijuana use either. Colorado, another state on the forefront of adult use legalization, still allows employers to terminate employees for medical marijuana use, too.
While Oregon and California have struggled to pass legislation protecting employee’s off-work medical marijuana use, other states have managed. These laws typically create a carve-out for employers who contract with the federal government and therefore are required to have a drug-free workplace. Federal legislators also have recently introduced legislation to protect off-work marijuana use. Currently the bipartisan bill is stalled in the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
I suspect eventually the states discussed in this blog post will catch up with the changing of the times, but until then, be aware that many states allow employers to terminate employees for their legal use of marijuana—medical or otherwise.
Editor’s Note: This blog post first ran on December 6. We are re-publishing it here because a platform glitch erased the initial publication.