Today, Massachusetts started retail sales of marijuana at two locations. Perhaps no location is closer to the population centers of Connecticut than Northampton — just 30 miles up the road from Enfield.  It’s the first store east of the Mississippi River.

And lest you think that this is a Massachusetts-only affair, you need only watch the news reports from today to understand that there are plenty of Connecticut residents lining up seeking to avoid the restrictions in place in the Constitution State.   And Governor-Elect Lamont has indicated he’s in favor of it. 

This is going to cause headaches and some choices for employers in Connecticut.

Small amounts of marijuana have been de-criminalized in Connecticut but recreational use and possession is still prohibited. Moreover, employers are still free to discipline employees for recreational use on the job or even off.

But Connecticut has, for several years now, permitted medical marijuana users (who have registered with the state) to have some limited job protections.  On-the-job marijuana use can still be prohibited as well as showing up under the influence.

The City of Waterbury recently announced a policy that testing positive for any amount of marijuana may subject employees to discipline.  As a news article notes, that policy is likely to be challenged in arbitration and the courts.  

So what can a private employer do when it drug tests employees in Connecticut and the results show up as “positive” for marijuana? Well, employers are going to first want to know if the employee is a medical marijuana patient, in which case further inquiries may be needed.  Otherwise, the employer may have the ability to still discipline or terminate that employee’s employment.

Beyond the “Can We Fire…” question, the newer question is going to be “Should We Fire….”

With legal sales just miles away from employers here, the line as to what should be permitted or not gets, if you permit the pun, hazier and hazier.  No doubt, some employers are going to try to draw lines in the sand and say that any drug use is not permitted — particularly if there are additional legal obligations that they need to follow. But some others may have a more permissive attitude and treat marijuana use as they do alcohol use — it’s fine so long as it doesn’t impact work and so long as it isn’t done at work.

The start of retail sales in Massachusetts is not the end of the story here; Connecticut may very well start to reconsider its own laws now that one New England state has taken the plunge. Regardless, employers should continue to talk with their counsel to navigate this ever-changing area of law.

Many states have approved the use of medical marijuana, despite the fact that the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.  As a result there is a tension between state rights to use medical marijuana and federal law prohibiting its possession.  The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had an opportunity to determine how to balance the rights of an employee who had been prescribed and was taking medical marijuana for Crohn’s Disease versus the employer’s interest in complying with federal law and maintaining a drug free work place.  The Court found that the employee had sufficiently alleged that she was a qualified individual with a disability who was entitled to a reasonable accommodation related to use of medical marijuana.  As a result, her firing after testing positive could be challenged and she could pursue a disability discrimination claim under state law.

As part of the hiring process, a new employee was required to take a drug test.  She immediately explained to her supervisor that she suffered from Crohn’s disease and she had been prescribed and was using medical marijuana which was improving her appetite and allowing her to stabilize her weight.  She said that she did not take it before work or during working hours, but that if tested, she would test positive.  After being tested and getting a positive result, the human resource administrator called and fired her.  When the employee tried to explain the she had a prescription, the administrator told her that the company follows federal law, not state law.

The employee ultimately sued in state court claiming that she was being discriminated against because of her disability and that the company had failed to accommodate her disability. Continue Reading Employer’s Defense Goes Up In Smoke

The General Assembly over the weekend passed a comprehensive bill that permits individuals to use marijuana for palliative purposes.  The bill is expected to be signed by the Governor this month.

Are Policies "Up In Smoke"?

Besides just permitting individuals to use marijuana, it has several important provisions that will impact employers in Connecticut.  Unfortunately, as the history of medical marijuana bills in other states has shown, there are still many unanswered questions left.  Employers will be wise to seek legal counsel to understand the full implications of this bill in their specific industry and workplace.

(I previously discussed the impact of last year’s bill to decriminalize marijuana here.)

Under the new law (which you can download here), employers are prohibited from refusing to hire, firing, penalizing or threatening an employee “solely on the basis…as a qualifying patient or primary caregiver.”  The law does have an important caveat; the employer can act if “required by federal law or required to obtain federal funding.”  Thus, if there are, for example, commercial driving laws in your industry that restrict the use of marijuana, it appears that law will trump state law.

The law does not, however, clarify what it means to be “solely” on the basis of.  Does that mean an employer can consider it but just combine it with other reasons?  Does that mean if an employee brings in marijuana to work (but doesn’t use it) that would be sufficient grounds for termination?

Notably, the law also states that marijuana use is not allowed “(A) in a motor bus or a school bus or in any other moving vehicle, (B) in the workplace, (C) on any school grounds or any public or private school, dormitory, college or university property, (D) in any public place, or (E) in the presence of a person under the age of eighteen.”

Sounds good, right? Except what does “in the workplace” mean? Any place where the employee works? In the home office? What happens if the employee is an outside salesman? Can an employer still implement a “zero-tolerance” workplace policy?

Before an employer frets too much, the bill does add that the bill does not “restrict an employer’s ability to prohibit the use of intoxicating substances during work hours or restrict an employer’s ability to discipline an employee for being under the influence of intoxicating substances during work hours.”

So, if an employer still has a policy (much like it does for alcohol) that restricts the use of these substances during work hours, that appears to be safe.

But still, questions remain.  What if the employee requests a reasonable accommodation under state law to smoke marijuana during work hours, arguing that it will allow her to do her job?  There is no doubt that, despite some of the language in the statute, that some will seek to have this issue litigated.

For more background on how other states have dealt with this issue, see these posts from Michigan, Washington, Pennsylvania and Delaware

Employers that have had multi-state offices have had to address this for some time, but for all other employers, the new law is bound to cause a late night or two thinking about this.  You may want to break out some munchies: We’re in for a ride.

Continuing our weekly summer series on the basics of various employment laws, we’ll turn this week to the state’s drug testing laws (which can be found starting at Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-51t)

I’ve discussed some of the quirks in this statute in a prior post, including the fact that the testing rules for applicants differ from employees, but that an "employee" may also include a former employee too. 

But what are the rules that employers must follow for job applicants?

For job applicants (the statute uses "prospective employee"), an employer cannot require a urinalysis drug test as part of the application process unless three items are met:

  1. the applicant "is informed in writing at the time of application of the employer’s intent to conduct such a drug test"
  2. the test is in accordance with procedures set up in the statute (basically a two-step test); and
  3. the applicant is "given a copy of any positive urinalysis drug test result."

The results of that test must be kept confidential and only shared with an employee "to whom such disclosure is necessary." (Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-51v)

While many employers in Connecticut have the discretion as to whether or not to implement drug testing, those employers who are subject to the Drug Free Workplace Act (mainly those federal contractors or grantees) may have additional requirements to follow. 

As always, this area is filled with traps for the unwary so if you’re thinking about implementing such a program be sure to consult with an attorney or a company that specializes in this area.