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Federal Judge Says Medical Marijuana Patient Excluded From Job Can Sue

With varying medical and recreational cannabis laws across the United States, employers are seldom held responsible for discrimination against users.

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A federal judge ruled last week that the lawsuit of a Connecticut medical marijuana patient alleging workplace discrimination can proceed, after the plaintiff claimed she was denied employment because of her previously disclosed, state-legal use of medical cannabis.

According to Marijuana Moment, the suit was initially filed in 2016 after Bride Brook Health and Rehabilitation Center revoked a job offer to Katelin Noffsinger, citing a positive test result for THC in a pre-hire drug screening. Noffsinger, who uses synthetic marijuana pills to treat post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a 2012 car crash, said that she had told the company about her state-approved THC use in initial interviews, and decided to pursue legal recourse against alleged act of discrimination. Connecticut’s medical marijuana law protects patients from unjust firings, as long as cannabis is not consumed on the job.

After the lawsuit was filed in state court, officials at Bride Brook, a federal contractor, argued that they dismissed Noffsinger because her cannabis use was unlawful under federal statutes, and that the company’s obligations under Connecticut state law were superseded by their requirement to follow the federally mandated Drug-Free Workplace Act. Thanks to those arguments, the case was eventually elevated to the federal court system.

But last week, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Meyer decided an initial victory for Noffsinger, ruling that the Drug-Free Workplace Act requires only “good faith effort” to maintain a narcotic-free business, and does not require any zero-tolerance testing and subsequent dismissals — allowing Noffsinger’s case to move forward.

In medical marijuana-friendly states across the country, employee cannabis use has become an increasingly contentious issue, with only a few states — including Connecticut and Maine — protecting medical marijuana card holders from workplace drug regulations. In states like California, Florida, and more, employees are free to fire workers for state-legal pot use without retribution.

For example, two other instances of cannabis-based employment discrimination have made the news just this week alone. In Florida, an employee is taking the city of Miami to court after he was initially hired as a full-time laborer, before city officials rescinded the job offer based on his previously divulged medical marijuana use. Across the country in California, Elon Musk’s viral blunt-smoking video has brought new attention to a Tesla employee who was fired because of her state-legal, medical marijuana use off the job. 

“It was just like a slap in the face to me and my son,” Crystal Guardado, a single mother who worked at Tesla’s Fremont, California factory for four months before being dismissed, told Bloomberg. “Elon Musk is just smoking it out in the open, knowing that he uses his very vague drug policy as a way to fire people that are a threat to him.”

Because California does not guarantee employee protections for medical marijuana patients, Guardado was left in the same position as countless other cannabis users, left unemployed and feeling criminalized for consuming a legal plant. 

"It's an unfortunate feature of the medical marijuana laws in 31 states," Ben Pollara, a Miami campaign consultant and medical marijuana activist, told the Miami New Times. "Every ruling I've ever seen has been favorable to employers on this."

As for Noffsinger’s case, the recent ruling has shifted the discourse around federal excuses for ignoring state cannabis law, but in his decision, Judge Meyer did not award Noffsinger any financial compensation, but instead opened the door for her to pursue civil damages in a subsequent jury trial against Bride Brook.