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Mass. Supreme Court: Some medical marijuana users protected from discrimination

Earlier this month, in a landmark decision for proponents of marijuana legalization, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that an employer who fired an employee because she used medical marijuana to treat her Crohn’s disease may have violated the state’s disability discrimination law. The employee in the case, Cristina Barbuto, was up front with her employer, Advantage Sales and Marketing (“Advantage”), and disclosed that her doctor had prescribed medical marijuana which she used a few times per week at home; she never came to work intoxicated. Some managers with Advantage were allegedly accepting of Barbuto’s marijuana use but a human resources representative ultimately fired Barbuto because marijuana use violates federal law.

Advantage’s attorney argued that allowing an employee to use marijuana cannot be a reasonable accommodation because marijuana use violates federal law. The court rejected this argument. It determined that, even though marijuana use violates federal law, allowing someone with a disability to use it for medicinal purposes could be a required reasonable accommodation because Massachusetts state law permits medical marijuana use.

In reaching its decision, the court noted that the vast majority of states permit medical marijuana use and that fact weighed on its decision. The court stressed that “to declare an accommodation for medical marijuana to be per se unreasonable out of respect for Federal law would not be respectful of the recognition of Massachusetts voters, shared by the legislatures of voters in the vast majority of States, that marijuana has accepted medical use for some patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions.”

The court also held that Advantage would have run afoul of Massachusetts’ disability discrimination law if it, as Barbuto alleged, failed to engage in an interactive process to find a suitable accommodation for Barbuto’s Crohn’s disease if the employer thought marijuana use was unacceptable. For instance, if Barbuto’s doctor could’ve prescribed a different medication that would have worked as well as marijuana, that might have solved the problem. But, at least according to Barbuto, Advantage did not care to work with her to address the issue and, instead, just fired her.

The court was careful to point out that Advantage may still be able to prevail in the case if it could show that allowing Brabuto to use medical marijuana would have created an undue hardship for the company. For example, if Advantage could show that employing Barbuto despite her marijuana use would violate the terms of a contractual obligation the company had, that would be evidence that could support an undue hardship defense.

While this is a victory for proponents of marijuana legalization, the law in this area is fraught with complications. Some marijuana use is also legal in Maine. If you use medical marijuana and your employer is unwilling to tolerate it, contact an experienced employment lawyer as soon as possible for advice on how you should address the situation.

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