Medical marijuana (technically, “medical cannabis”) may be lawfully dispensed in Minnesota starting July 1, 2015. What does this mean for Minnesota employers?
First, the state’s new medical cannabis law generally prohibits Minnesota employers from using a job applicant’s or employee’s status of being on the medical cannabis registry as a reason for discriminating against that person. In other words, Minnesota employers generally may not discipline, discharge or refuse to hire someone just because they are on the registry.
The new law also largely prohibits employers from discriminating against employees and applicants who test positive for cannabis unless they used, possessed or were impaired by the drug while at the work site or during work. While proving use or possession should not be too problematic, the law certainly complicates the “impaired by” part of the analysis.
Historically, employers could prove impairment by administering a drug test that complies with the Minnesota Drug and Alcohol Testing in the Workplace Act (“MDATWA”). A positive test under MDATWA opened the door for future disciplinary action or withdrawing a job offer.
Now, not only are employers prohibited from discriminating against employees and applicants who test positive, but also employees and applicants will have the right to provide their medical cannabis registration as an explanation for a positive test. While this still does not allow a registered patient to use, possess or be impaired by the drug at work, the challenge is that a positive test for cannabis will not necessarily prove when the employee or applicant used, possessed or was impaired by the drug.
As noted above, these are the general rules. There are a few key exceptions. Specifically, employers may discriminate against those on the state’s medical marijuana registry if failing to do so would violate federal law or regulations or cause the employer to lose a monetary or licensing-related benefit under federal law or regulations. Thus, employers who are covered by laws such as the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act of 1988 or the Omnibus Transportation Employee Testing Act of 1991 will be able to hold registered patients to a higher standard.
Employers also need to recognize that Minnesota’s medical marijuana law differs significantly from comparable laws in other states. Therefore, they should not pay too much attention to what happens elsewhere. For example, in one recent case (Coats v. Dish Network, LLC) the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Dish Network lawfully fired an employee who tested positive for marijuana, even though that employee was apparently using the drug lawfully under that state’s marijuana laws. Given Minnesota’s prohibition against discriminating against registered patients who test positive, the outcome would probably be different here.
As a practical matter, dealing with the implications of the state’s medical cannabis law should be a relatively rare occurrence.* The state estimates there are only 5,000 people (about 0.09% of the entire state) who will qualify to be on the registry (see J. Ehrlich, Minnesota Medical Marijuana: What You Need to Know, MPR News, June 1, 2015). With a labor force of about three million workers (see Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Unemployment Statistics for April, 2015), that means there are probably only 2,700 potential workers statewide who could be on the registry. Given the severity of the conditions for which a person may qualify to be on the registry, the likelihood of those people also being in the workforce is even more remote.
Nevertheless, employers must be prepared to address the workplace challenges presented by Minnesota’s medical cannabis law. Specifically, workplace drug and alcohol policies (particularly MDATWA-compliant testing policies) should be reviewed and revised if needed to take into account the state’s medical cannabis law. And, employers will need to rely on evidence other than a drug test if they want to take action against employees or applicants who theybelieve have used, possessed or were impaired by marijuana on the work site or during work hours.
*Since this article was published, many other conditions, such as PTSD and obstructive sleep apnea have been added to the list. Chronic pain and macular degeneration will become qualifying conditions in 2020. Therefore, the number of employees who may lawfully obtain medical cannabis continues to grow.