Federal Court Rules that Medical Marijuana User’s Claim Under State Law is Not Preempted by Federal Statutes

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

The United States District Court of the District of Connecticut became the first federal court to issue a ruling that federal law does not preempt a state law that expressly prohibits employers from firing or refusing to hire someone who uses marijuana for medical purposes.   This is the second court decision finding that an individual may pursue a claim when adverse action is taken by the employer for a positive marijuana drug test when the individual is a medical marijuana user (we discussed the first court decision here). These decisions may demonstrate a larger change in how courts will address claims against employers when medical marijuana is involved.

In Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co., Plaintiff alleged that the company reneged on its decision to hire her for a position at a nursing facility because she acknowledged using medical marijuana and tested positive for cannabis in a pre-employment drug test.  Plaintiff filed this lawsuit and alleged that the company’s action was discriminatory and violated Connecticut’s law allowing medical cannabis consumption.  The company argued that the Connecticut statute was preempted by three different federal statutes:  the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act (“FDCA”).

The federal court ruled that the Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (“PUMA”) was not preempted by these three federal statutes that generally appear front and center in medical marijuana cases.  First, the court ruled that the state statute is not preempted by the CSA because the CSA does not regulate the employment relationship, and thus, the employment anti-discrimination provision of PUMA does not conflict with the CSA.   The court distinguished this case from other cases dealing with the CSA’s preemption of state medical marijuana statutes coming out in favor of employers by focusing on the fact that these cases did not concern statutes with specific anti-discrimination provisions.  Second, the court found that the ADA does not preclude states from regulating employers who discriminate against employees who engage in the medicinal use of drugs in compliance with state law.  Third, the court found that PUMA was not preempted by the FDCA because FDCA does not regulate employment, and the court’s sole focus was on the validity of PUMA’s anti-discrimination-in-employment provision.

Important to the District Court’s decision is that PUMA is one of the few state medical marijuana statutes that explicitly prohibits employers from discriminating against patients using marijuana in compliance with state law.  Most state laws, such as Ohio, Georgia and Washington, explicitly write out the obligation of employers to accommodate in the medical marijuana law itself.  However, some states, like Connecticut, have taken a contrary approach, and explicitly placed language in their statutes requiring employers to accommodate legal out of work marijuana consumption, unless the employer can show that the usage is negatively impacting performance or job responsibilities.  The District Court explicitly referenced the eight states that have statutes similar to Connecticut’s – Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New York and Rhode Island.  This emphasizes that the language in the state medical marijuana statute is key to determining whether claims such as those asserted here can be maintained.

As support for expanding legalization of medical marijuana grows, and as medical marijuana is now legal in over half of the states, this is certainly something for employers to keep tabs on. For a fuller analysis of this issue, and others facing marijuana usage in the workplace, please read Workplace Marijuana Accommodations: The Road Ahead.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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