Guest Column: Christina L. Lewis and Patrick A. Rogers
Rhode Island and 18 other states – including Massachusetts and Connecticut – have enacted laws legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Rhode Island’s Medical Marijuana Act permits individuals carrying a valid registry identification card issued by the R.I. Department of Health to legally use marijuana for the treatment of qualifying medical conditions.
As the number of medical-marijuana cardholders in Rhode Island increases, however, companies are grappling with tough questions on how to reconcile the Medical Marijuana Act with the practical realities of running a business: zero-tolerance policies, safety concerns and federal contracts prohibiting marijuana use.
Below is some general guidance that may help local companies conduct operations in compliance with Rhode Island’s Medical Marijuana Act.
Many employers have longstanding zero-tolerance policies, mandating the termination of employees who test positive for illegal drugs on the job. These common policies can prove beneficial: they communicate a clear message about employee behavior, deter employees from using illegal drugs and ensure uniformity in disciplinary action. Zero-tolerance policies, however, may now pose a liability risk for employers because of the Medical Marijuana Act.
The act prohibits employers from refusing to employ or penalize a person solely because he or she possesses a valid medical-marijuana card. At first glance, zero-tolerance policies do not appear to conflict with the law, as it merely prohibits employers from discriminating against employees “on the basis of their status as a cardholder.”
But may employers terminate an employee who tests positive for marijuana, but not on the basis of holding a registry card?
As a general rule, employers should exercise great care in enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for two primary reasons. First, strict enforcement could run afoul of the Medical Marijuana Act. Second, Rhode Island also has a law governing drug testing of employees. It regulates when and how employees can be tested, and prohibits employers from terminating an employee on the basis of a single positive drug test.