No One Should Lose Their Job for Getting High

A new California bill seeks to protect medical marijuana patients from workplace discrimination.

It’s usually a bad sign if your path to employment includes urinating into a cup. Unfortunately, many folks don’t have the luxury of passing on jobs that require this invasive step. While what you drink off-the-clock isn’t grounds for termination, what you smoke may still cost you a career. In California, where the medical and recreational consumption of cannabis by adults is now legal, this leaves a loophole begging to be closed.

Assembly Bill 2069 might be the solution. Introduced in February by Assemblymember Rob Bonta and co-sponsored by Assemblymember Bill Quirk — both East Bay Democrats — AB 2069 would provide protections from workplace termination for medical-marijuana patients.

Specifically, it seeks to “prohibit an employer from engaging in employment discrimination against a person on the basis of his or her status as, or positive drug test for cannabis by, a qualified patient or person with an identification card.” By stipulating the need for an identity card, AB 2069 thus limits its range to those certified by California as medical-marijuana patients. Should the bill pass, it may provide precedent for future law. It may perhaps lead to a future bill that acknowledges non-patients qualified to purchase, possess, and consume cannabis are also in need of protection from unjust workplace discrimination.

Given that cannabis remains a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, AB 2069 also offers some protections for employers as well, permitting a company to fire or refuse to hire an individual if such actions would “cause the employer to lose a monetary or licensing-related benefit under federal law.” In essence, if a company would be financially punished by retaining medical marijuana users, they are not beholden to the requirements set forth in the bill.

AB 2069 further states that the law would not cover employees who show up to work during business hours under the influence of cannabis.

In the context of the greater cultural shift regarding marijuana, AB 2069 can be seen as a first step on a path that will ultimately stretch many miles. Certainly, if the state in which a company operates sees fit to issue medical licenses that permit cannabis consumption, employers should not have the authority to terminate employees for engaging in perfectly legal activity on their own time. However, AB 2069 fails to address the breadth of the issue fully.

As previously mentioned, the bill does nothing for recreational users , and with cannabis now readily available for adults ages 21 and over, the onus to have a card is substantially reduced. Is it worth it to go through the process if it means protecting your job? Quite possibly, but such a slog is bureaucracy at its worst. To make individuals jump through so many endless hoops just to satisfy an arbitrary requirement is precisely what Proposition 64 was supposed to reduce, not amplify.

Furthermore, AB 2069 runs into the same issues this column analyzed in SB 1273 last week. That bill — which would permit testing of underage drivers for suspected cannabis use — also relies on the assumption that a reliable metric to prove impairment exists. While no one is advocating for companies to start allowing bongs in the break room, a significant number of California’s estimated 1.5 million medical marijuana patients consume cannabis to treat symptoms — and they’re fully capable of doing their jobs responsibly while enjoying the benefits of their chosen treatment.

By leaving room for employers to seek out evidence of these individuals being impaired on the job, AB 2069 provides an excellent way to eliminate cannabis users from their payrolls without running afoul of the law. Is “impaired” a certain level of THC in the body? If so, how does one differentiate between the teenager who hits a joint on his lunch break and the cancer patient who eats potent edibles to ease the symptoms of chemotherapy?

As of now, a satisfactory answer has yet to be offered, but until one is found, the ambiguity will continue to favor those who oppose cannabis. As we await a reliable standard, the troublesome standby of the “eye test” or one specific medical professional’s analysis of a blood test will continue to be the metric by which we operate.

In the interim, we’ll have to simply hope that AB 2069 is the beginning of a longer conversation. As long as a chasm between the legal status of cannabis and laws regarding the workplace remains, the risk of wrongful termination runs high.

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.
feedback@sfweekly.com |  @zackruskin

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