Do you smoke weed? Congratulations, you can be legally fired for doing so. This is one of marijuana legalization’s greatest blind spots, and something that a California lawmaker is working to fix.
Like free speech, marijuana legalization has its limits. The First Amendment does not guarantee indemnification from the results of your free speech just as no state-level legalization law guarantees you, the cannabis user, any right to employment. In fact, quite the opposite.
Cannabis may be legal, but you consume it at your own risk, because in most places in America, cannabis consumption is grounds for immediate termination from your job. State and federal drug-free workplace laws underpin this reality, and courts have upheld that these laws do allow employers the “right” to fire their people for smoking weed, and to deny employment solely for cannabis use.
In 11 states, however, there are laws forbidding employers from firing workers solely for being medical-marijuana patients, but only two protect employees from termination if they test positive for cannabis — and that’s only if they’re patients.
In the 39 other states, including in cannabis-laden Colorado, if you were outed publicly as a marijuana user, you stand to lose your livelihood.
Put another way: In a country without much of a social safety net, and where “human rights” such as housing, healthcare and food are often available only for people earning a steady income, marijuana use jeopardizes access to the tools of life.
There’s no solution for this forthcoming for all cannabis users. However, medical marijuana users in California might soon see legal protections, if a bill introduced this week in the California Legislature becomes law.
Introduced Thursday by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), AB 2609 would prohibit employers from terminating workers solely based on “their status as medical marijuana patients” or on a drug test that came back positive for marijuana.
If passed, AB 2609 would not stop employers from firing a worker for being impaired — a tricky situation, as there has yet to be a test created that accurately gauges marijuana impairment — and any employer receiving federal money (including any federal agency) could still have a weed-free workplace.
So it’s limited, but it’s a start, and it’s better than the status quo, particularly in the context of an opiate-fueled overdose crisis striking the nation at the same time as widening economic inequality.
“To be discriminated against by your employer because of the type of medicine you use is both inhumane and wrong,” Bonta said in a statement.
“It’s time to stop treating cannabis patients like second-class citizens,” added Dale Gieringer, Executive Director of California NORML. “It’s absurd that employers let their workers use addictive prescription opiates, but not medical cannabis, given that cannabis is so much safer and often more effective for chronic pain.”
The 11 states with some measure of protection for cannabis patients are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Of those, New York and Minnesota forbid users from accessing marijuana flower, and among these, several restrict cannabis access so strictly that patients must need be seriously ill — possibly, too ill to work — to become a cannabis patient.
There are some glaring absences on this list: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and California, the state that’s had medical marijuana on its law books the longest. Why is this, you may well ask? There is no satisfactory answer, beyond Gieringer’s observation. Marijuana users have spent generations marginalized, and they are marginalized still. Legalization hasn’t fixed it, and it’s far from clear that it will.
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