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Connecticut Court Upholds State Medical Marijuana Law

September 5, 2017
The federal government and state governments across the U.S. have long diverged over the use and regulation of marijuana, especially medical marijuana. Thanks to a couple of recent court decisions, some of the consequences of this divergence are beginning to appear. 
Massachusetts employers learned in July 2017 via the Barbuto case from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) that, depending on the circumstances, they may have to provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee who uses medical marijuana. 
Now a federal court in Connecticut has ruled that if an employer’s workplace drug and alcohol-testing policies are based on a zero tolerance toward medical marijuana because it is illegal under federal law, the federal laws prohibiting the use and sale of marijuana do not preempt state law.
The court ruled that federal law does not preempt the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (PUMA), which protects employees and job applicants from employment discrimination based on medical marijuana use which is permitted under state law. 
The applicant began using medical marijuana after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The employer offered her a job in 2016, contingent on her passing a pre-employment drug test.
In a situation analogous to the Barbuto case, the applicant told the employer she was a registered medical marijuana user who used it only at night before bed to help with her symptoms. She would not be impaired at work. The applicant tested positive for marijuana causing the employer to rescind the job offer.  
The applicant sued, alleging the company’s withdrawal of the offer violated the PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision. Citing various federal laws, the employer moved to dismiss the lawsuit. 
After analyzing the state law in light of the various federal statutes, the court ruled that none of them overrode it. The court also ruled that the law contained an implied private right of action allowing qualified people to allege anti-discrimination in response to an employer’s adverse employment action taken based on rights protected by PUMA. 
The Connecticut case is the first to determine that marijuana’s illegal status under federal law does not bar a discrimination claim based on conduct protected by state medical marijuana laws.  The decision may have implications across the U.S. as states face legal challenges over their medical marijuana laws. 
Barbuto and this case highlight the shifting landscape of how the law and the courts will treat medical marijuana. Employers need to remain aware of relevant court decisions and be prepared to change their handbook policies and employment practices to make sure they comply with the law when it changes. 
Employers with more detailed questions about this or any other drug and alcohol in the workplace related question may contact the AIM Employer Hotline at 800-470-6277. AIM will be presenting seminars in the late autumn about the impact of the Barbuto case and medical marijuana in Massachusetts. 
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