When states first began legalizing medical marijuana in the mid- to late 1990s, not many people would have guessed that in fewer than 20 years, the substance would be decriminalized in 16 states, fully legal for adult use in two and approved for medical use in 22.
There’s a lot of overlap among those states, but between the states with decriminalization statutes on the books and those that have legalized marijuana for medical use, more than half of the states in the country have enacted laws that somewhat or fully protect adults who use marijuana.
With this political sea change have come new challenges, not just for dispensary owners and marijuana advocates, but for everyone who owns a business in those states. Until the federal law is changed, employers in states that allow some form of marijuana use are caught in the unique legal limbo that’s created when state law allows something and federal law prohibits it.
Only four states — Arizona, Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island — provide any level of legal protection for employees who are prescribed medical marijuana, and Arizona and Minnesota’s laws offer the strongest protections for employees. The question of marijuana legalization (medical or otherwise) has forced many business-owners to examine their policies and make decisions about how they will communicate with their employees about those policies.
And unless there’s a safety issue involved (a position that requires operating heavy machinery or driving, for example), many human relations legal experts suggest thinking carefully before placing a blanket ban on employee medical marijuana use.
See also: How to insure clients who use marijuana
Valerie Samuels, an attorney with Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP in Boston and co-chair of the firm’s employment law group, says employees can petition to have their medical marijuana use accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act — but that doesn’t mean employers must comply.
“You cannot force an employer to accommodate an illegal activity, and marijuana remains illegal under federal law,” she points out. “As long as it’s illegal under federal law, employers won’t have to accommodate it. And under federal law, if an employee is fired for having marijuana in his or her system, the employee would have no recourse.”