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Workers Can’t Be Fired for Using Medical Marijuana, Massachusetts’ Top Court Rules

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favor of an employee and Crohn’s disease patient fired after testing positive for marijuana.

You can’t fire medical cannabis patients for just using cannabis, the Massachusetts High Court ruled last week. Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants ruled last week that a woman who had been fired for testing positive for marijuana that she had been legally recommended under state law could sue her employer for handicap discrimination.

Christina Barbuto’s case against Advantage Sales and Marketing had originally been dismissed by the Superior Court in 2015. Barbuto claims that the California company’s officials had told her medical marijuana use wouldn’t be a problem, but then fired her the day after she tested positive for the substance. The company argued that the firing was justified, as marijuana remains prohibited under federal law. Chief Justice Gants ruled in favor of Barbuto.

In his ruling, Gants wrote, “the use and possession of medically prescribed marijuana by a qualified patient is as lawful as the use and possession of any other prescribed medication,” and therefore employees can’t use blanket anti-marijuana policies to fire workers who have had cannabis prescribed by a licensed physician.

Gants added that if a doctor concludes medical marijuana is the most effective treatment, “an exception to an employer’s drug policy to permit its use is a facially reasonable accommodation.”

“The fact that the employee’s possession of medical marijuana is in violation of federal law does not make it per se unreasonable as an accommodation,” Gants wrote.

Massachusetts’ voters approved the medical use of marijuana in 2012. Last November, state voters took it a step further, legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes.

“This is the highest court in Massachusetts recognizing that the use of medically prescribed marijuana is just as lawful as the use of any prescribed medication,” said Matthew Fogelman, Barbuto’s lawyer.

In Barbuto’s lawsuit, she said she had been recommended medical marijuana by her physician for a lack of appetite due to Crohn’s disease. Cannabis had helped her maintain a healthy weight, she claimed.

“I explained to [my employers] that I just used a very small amount before meals,” Barbuto said. “It wasn’t a ‘high’ feeling, it was just getting me hungry and doing what the doctor told me.”

Medical Marijuana Research

Under federal law, marijuana remains prohibited, as it is classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Twenty-nine states, however, have passed their own measures allowing the possession and use of marijuana for medical purposes. The ruling could set a precedent, opening the door for contests by other medical marijuana patients who had been fired over their use of the drug.

“I can’t stress this enough, it’s the first case of its kind in the country,” said Dale Deitchler, expert on marijuana issues in the workplace and shareholder at Littler Mendelson, the world’s largest labor and employment law firm.

Following the Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling, the lower court will now review Barbuto’s dismissal under the new parameters established by the high court.

Learn more about cannabis laws throughout the U.S. by visiting our education page.