In a recent decision (Callaghan v. Darlington Fabrics Corp.), the Rhode Island Supreme Court has held that under Rhode Island law, an employer cannot refuse to hire a medical marijuana cardholder, even if the applicant admits during the interview that he/she will not be able to pass the employer’s mandatory pre-employment drug test.
In this case, the plaintiff had applied for a paid internship with Darlington Fabrics. During a meeting with the company’s Human Resources Coordinator, she informed the Human Resources Coordinator that she had a medical marijuana card. At this meeting, the plaintiff also signed Darlington’s Fitness for Duty Statement, acknowledging she would have to take a drug test prior to being hired.
In a subsequent conversation with the Human Resources Coordinator, the plaintiff was asked if she was currently using medical marijuana and the plaintiff responded “Yes.” The plaintiff then indicated that because of her medical marijuana use, she would test positive on her pre-employment drug screening.
In response, the Human Resources Coordinator informed the plaintiff that a positive drug test would “prevent the Company from hiring her.” The plaintiff then told the Human Resources Coordinator that she was allergic to many other painkillers and that she would neither use marijuana in or bring it to the workplace.
Following that conversation, the Human Resources Coordinator called the plaintiff and told her that the company was “unable to hire her.” The plaintiff sued the company under the Rhode Island medical marijuana law, the Hawkins-Slater Act, as well as the state’s disability discrimination statute, for refusing to hire her.
The Court’s Ruling
The ruling in this case centered on the Court’s interpretation of two separate provisions of the Hawkins-Slater Act:
“No school, employer, or landlord may refuse to enroll, employ, or lease to, or otherwise penalize, a person solely for his or her status as a cardholder.”
“Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to require … [a]n employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace.”
Based on the above-quoted language, the Court found that the statute does, in some way, require employers to accommodate the medical use of marijuana outside the workplace. Specifically, the Court found that the Hawkins-Slater Act prohibits employers both from refusing to employ a person for his or her status as a cardholder, and also from refusing to hire an applicant because of his/her use of medical marijuana.
In practical application, the Court believed that by finding the action the company took (rejecting an applicant because she would be unable to pass the pre-employment drug test due to her medical marijuana use) was lawful, such a finding would void the protections afforded to medical marijuana users under the law because a patient who, by virtue of his or her condition, has to use medical marijuana once or twice a week in a worse position than a recreational user. The recreational user could cease smoking long enough to pass the drug test and get hired, and subsequently not be subject to future drug tests, allowing him or her to smoke recreationally to his or her heart’s content. The medical user, however, would not be able to cease for long enough to pass the drug test, even though his or her use is necessary to “treat or alleviate pain, nausea, and other symptoms associated with certain debilitating medical conditions.”
With respect to the plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim, the court held that discrimination could be shown “against a class of disabled people — namely, those people with disabilities best treated by medical marijuana.” It also held that medical marijuana users are able to bring a state law disability discrimination claim, despite that: (1) the law disclaims protections to those who seek remedies based on his or her illegal drug use; and (2) marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Take home for employers
This new holding complicates things for Rhode Island employers who conduct drug testing for marijuana. An employee’s off-duty use of medical marijuana may cause the employee to test positive on a workplace drug test because marijuana may stay in the fatty tissues of the body for weeks. Rhode Island employers who conduct any form of drug need to consider the marijuana laws affecting their workplaces and how they will handle the question before an actual issue arises.