Justices deal medical marijuana dealt a setback

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A law legalizing medical marijuana in California was weakened Jan. 24 when the state's Supreme Court ruled that employers can fire employees if they test positive for marijuana use, even if the drug is prescribed by a doctor.

In a 5-2 ruling, the majority said the state's Compassionate Use Act, which voters approved in 1996 to legalize the use and sale of marijuana to those with a chronic illness or infirmity, does not protect employees who fail drug tests.

The court said a Sacramento telecommunications company had the right to fire Gary Ross, a former Air Force mechanic whose back was injured when he fell off an airplane wing in 1983, even though Ross provided written proof that a doctor had prescribed marijuana as a way to alleviate muscle spasms under the Compassionate Use Act. He had sued, alleging discrimination based on disability.

"Plaintiff's position might have merit if the Compassionate Use Act gave marijuana the same status as any legal prescription drug. But the act's effect is not so broad," Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote, upholding a lower court's decision.

"No state law could completely legalize marijuana for medical purposes because the drug remains illegal under federal law," she added. "... Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and obligations of employers and employees."

Barrett Duke, vice president of public policy for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press he is "encouraged that everyone hasn't lost their common sense in this matter."

"It is entirely appropriate for an employer to feel confident that all of his or her employees can perform their jobs without impairment," Duke said. "Marijuana is an extremely dangerous drug which undoubtedly impairs a person's mental and physical abilities, and employers should have the right to terminate someone who is using marijuana on the job."

California is one of 12 states with medical marijuana laws, and the Los Angeles Times noted that Rhode Island specifically protects workers from being fired for using medical marijuana. A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision said state medical marijuana laws do not protect users from criminal prosecution.

"Under California law, an employer may require pre-employment drug tests and take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions," Judge Werdegar wrote.

Immediately after the court's ruling, Assemblyman Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, said he would introduce within weeks a legislative amendment to the marijuana law in order to protect workers who use the drug for medical purposes. Leno said the ruling "strikes a serious blow to patients' rights," the Associated Press reported.

Ross blamed the court's decision on an outdated mindset that says marijuana use is suspect.

"What we're fighting here is a stigma of the history of the '60s against the elderly generation that's in power," he said, according to The Washington Post.

Deborah La Fetra of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative group that filed a brief supporting Ross' employer, said companies have to walk a serious line in such situations and would rather not be forced to determine which drug-using employees are impaired and which are not.

"Employers are held liable all the time when drunk or stoned employees cause trouble, either in the workplace or driving home," La Fetra told The Post. "That's one of the reasons why the drug-free workplace is so important."

Ross' employer, RagingWire Inc., said it fired Ross because it feared it could be the target of one of several federal raids that have cracked down on medical marijuana distributors. In fact, a couple other companies joined RagingWire's case because they feared losing federal contracts and grants if they allowed employees to use marijuana, AP said.

Compiled by Erin Roach, BP news, with reporting by BP news editor Art Toalston.