A Massachusetts Court Ruling Might End Up Changing How Some Employers View Medical Marijuana

A court ruling last month in the Massachusetts Supreme Court might end up having a major impact in the nation’s workplaces, regarding the issue of employees using medical marijuana.

On July 17, the Court ruled that an employee who had been fired from her job for using medical marijuana could sue her former employer for handicap discrimination.

The plaintiff in the case, Cristina Barbuto, had just started work at Advantage Sales and Marketing and was required to take a drug test. Barbuto has Crohn’s Disease and says she relies on her prescription for medical marijuana to deal with painful flare-ups.

Barbuto told her supervisor about her condition and her use of medical cannabis, and told the supervisor she did not use cannabis daily or while at work. She was told her marijuana use should not be an issue, but was fired soon after her drug test and was told by a company representative that the firm “followed federal law.”

“I felt discriminated against,” Barbuto told WBZ at the time. “I felt like, this is wrong, this can’t be.”

Back in 2012, Massachusetts voters approved medical marijuana in the state. The measure also allowed patients “meeting certain conditions to obtain marijuana produced and distributed by new state-regulated centers.”

In its ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rejected the argument made by Advantage Sales and Marketing; that Barbuto could not sue the company due to cannabis being illegal under federal law.

Barbuto’s attorneys, meanwhile, told Reuters the court decision “represents a major win” for employees in Massachusetts, while setting a precedent in other states where medical marijuana has been legalized.

Adam Kemper, a Florida-based labor and employment attorney with the firm Greenspoon Marder, agrees with that assessment.

“This is the first (case) of its kind in terms of not deferring to the employer and actually giving the employee the opportunity to prove her case,” he tells Blunt Network.

Kemper believes U.S. companies will now need to review their workplace guidelines more closely, to make sure their employment policies are not going to “adversely impact individuals such as the plaintiff in that case, who may have a disability and who may have a legitimate need for medical marijuana.”

He also faults Barbuto’s former employers for allegedly not engaging in the so-called interactive process required by The Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”): where an employer and an employee with a disability work together to identify any existing barriers that would get in the way of that employee’s particular job function.

In this case, he says, “what that means is an employer has a legal obligation to review with the employee what it can offer to accommodate the employee other than perhaps medical marijuana. What are some alternatives? It needed to go through that process.”

For his part, Kemper believes the case will end up being settled outside of court. But even so he expects it will reverberate with employers and employees in states with legalized medical marijuana.

“We’re going to continue to see a ton of lawsuits,” he says. “I think there will be litigants across the country referring to this Massachusetts state lawsuit to push the envelope in other states.”