First-of-Its-Kind Medical Marijuana Ruling Finds Employer Acted Illegally

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

May 31, 2017

A Rhode Island state court has found a company liable for refusing to hire a medical marijuana cardholder for a paid internship because she could not pass a preemployment drug test. The court held in Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corp. that the employer acted illegally even though the applicant admitted that she would test positive on the company's mandatory drug test.

This is a first-of-its-kind ruling not only in Rhode Island but nationwide. Medical marijuana use is legal in 29 states, including Rhode Island. However, even in these states, courts have held that medical marijuana use does not excuse a failed drug screen.

But in this case, the Rhode Island court found the language of the state's Hawkins-Slater Medical Marijuana Act significant. The Act states, "No school, employer or landlord may refuse to enroll, employ, or lease to, or otherwise penalize a person solely for his or her status as a cardholder."

The court noted that this protection would be illusory without a finding for the applicant because otherwise every medical marijuana patient could be screened out by a facially-neutral drug test. What's more, the court added, the employer's argument for denying employment would place medical marijuana users in a much worse position than recreational users.

Judge Richard Licht explained that a recreational user could stop smoking long enough to pass the drug test and get hired, and subsequently not be subject to future tests. In contrast, he wrote, "The medical user would not be able to cease for long enough to pass the drug test, even though his or her use is necessary to treat or alleviate pain, nausea and other symptoms associated with certain debilitating medical conditions."

In this case, the applicant self-disclosed that she held a medical marijuana card and would not pass the company's drug test. The company's human resources coordinator then told the applicant that the circumstances would prevent the company from hiring her. The court found that this refusal to hire violated state law.

Speaking with XpertHR, Jackson Lewis employment attorney Kathryn Russo, of the firm's Long Island, New York office, called the ruling "important." "This is the first employment discrimination case in this area that the employer did not win," said Russo. While noting that the employer almost certainly will appeal, Russo noted, "It highlights the need for employers - in Rhode Island and elsewhere - to consider the marijuana laws affecting their workplaces before an issue arises."