OLYMPIA, Wash. — Medical marijuana patients can be fired from their jobs in Washington state even if they only use the drug outside the workplace, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Justices said in their 8-1 decision that state law does not provide any employment protections for medical marijuana users and does not require companies to accommodate those patients.
The ruling stems from a 2007 lawsuit by a woman who was fired from TeleTech Customer Care Management in 2006 after her pre-employment drug screen came back positive. She had told the company she was an authorized medical marijuana patient, but the company's drug policy did not make an exception for medical marijuana.
The woman is listed in court papers as Jane Roe to protect her identity.
State law only makes one reference to the workplace, saying that employers are not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana on site. The woman argued that the law's wording implicitly requires employers to accommodate use outside the workplace.
Justices disagreed, saying in the majority opinion that "the language of (the law) is unambiguous – it does not regulate the conduct of a private employer or protect an employee from being discharged because of authorized medical marijuana use."
Justice Tom Chambers dissented, writing that it was unfortunate that Teletech's drug-screening policy doesn't take into consideration where the medical marijuana was used, whether it affects the employee's job performance or whether the company could accommodate an employee's medical use.
He said the case shows that legislators need to review the law.
"To that end, I urge the Legislature to thoughtfully review and improve the act," Chambers wrote.
The case largely became a dispute over the intentions of voters who approved medical marijuana more than a decade ago.
Jim Shore, an attorney who argued the case on behalf of TeleTech, said the measure was always intended to provide qualified medical marijuana users and health care providers with a legal defense from criminal prosecution. He said it was never intended to provide workplace rights and said Thursday's ruling makes that clear.
"It's absolutely the correct ruling and one that benefits the employer community," he said.
Alison Holcomb, drug policy director at the ACLU of Washington, took an opposing view. Holcomb thinks voters clearly intended for medical marijuana patients to be treated like any other patients with debilitating medical conditions.
Holcomb said the ruling underscored the need for a broader overhaul of marijuana laws. She said the ACLU is in the early stages of helping develop an initiative for the 2012 ballot that would legalize marijuana in the state.
"Washington is a great place to be pursuing that type of measure," Holcomb said. "Our voters support it. Our voters want a new approach that doesn't involve arresting people."
Mike Baker can be reached at http://twitter.com/MikeBakerAP