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Connecticut Marijuana Law Prohibits Discrimination Based on Medical Marijuana Use

By Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On September 5, 2018, in Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Co., the District Court of Connecticut held that, under the Connecticut Palliative Use of Marijuana Act (“PUMA”), employers are prohibited from refusing to hire a person because of the person’s status as a qualifying medical marijuana patient, which includes refusing to hire someone because they failed to pass a drug test for marijuana.  This case makes it clear that anyone who is prescribed marijuana or a marijuana derivative does not need to choose between taking their medication and losing an employment opportunity.

In Noffsinger, Plaintiff Katelin Noffsinger accepted a job offer from Defendant SSC Niantic Operating Company, LLC d/b/a Bride Brook Health & Rehabilitation Center (the “Center”).  The offer was contingent on drug testing, and Ms. Noffsinger told the Center that she was qualified under PUMA to use marijuana for medical purposes to treat her post-traumatic stress disorder, which she was diagnosed with in 2012 after being in a car accident, and related night terrors (marijuana generally prevents lucid or vivid dreams).  After her drug test came back positive for THC consistent with the use of marijuana, the Center rescinded its job offer.  The Center’s position was that it did not allow medical marijuana for its employees, so Ms. Noffsinger was disqualified for employment with them.

On summary judgment, the Center argued that it was exempt from PUMA’s anti-discrimination provision because the statute allows for an exception if discrimination is “required by federal law or required to obtain federal funding.”  According to the Center, the federal Drug Free Workplace Act (“DFWA”) barred it from hiring Ms. Noffsinger.  The DFWA requires federal contractors like the Center to make a “good faith effort” to maintain a drug-free workplace by taking certain measures, such as publishing a statement regarding the use of illegal drugs in the workplace and establishing a drug-free awareness program.  The Center stated that it adopted its substance abuse policy in order to comply with the DFWA.  The Court, however, disagreed that the DFWA required the Center to rescind Plaintiff’s job offer.  The DFWA does not require drug testing, nor does it prohibit federal contractors from employing someone who uses illegal drugs outside of the workplace, much less an employee who uses medical marijuana outside the workplace in accordance with a program approved by state law.

The Center next argued that PUMA prohibits discrimination only on the basis of one’s status as an approved medical marijuana patient but not on account of one’s use of medical marijuana in accordance with a PUMA program.  For this argument, the Center relied on the language of the statute that forbids an employer from refusing to hire someone “solely on the basis of such person’s or employee’s status as a qualifying patient.”  But, the Court found, the language and purpose of the statute made clear that it protects employees from discrimination based on their use of medical marijuana pursuant to their qualifying status under PUMA.  Under the Center’s restrictive interpretation of the statute, employers would be free to fire status-qualifying patients based on their actual use of medical marijuana—the very purpose for which a patient has sought and obtained a qualifying status.  The Court found that argument nonsensical, as it would render the statute’s protection against PUMA-based discrimination a nullity; there would be no reason for a patient to seek PUMA status if not to use medical marijuana as permitted under PUMA.

For employees using medicinal marijuana for mental health reasons, this decision is great because it does not force people to chose between their job and their medication.  According to the Psychiatric Times, patients taking medicinal marijuana have reported improvements in their PTSD symptoms, anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, chronic pain, insomnia, opiate dependence, and even schizophrenia.  Though some may argue that there are other ways of treating mental health conditions, medicinal marijuana has proven to be an effective method in psychiatric practice.

This decision is particularly uplifting because only two months ago, the District Court of New Jersey reached the opposite conclusions in Cotto v. Ardagh Glass Packing, Inc., upholding an employer’s decision to terminate an employee on medical marijuana after he failed to pass a drug test (see our recent blog about this case here).  New Jersey’s medical marijuana laws, however, did not contain an anti-retaliation provision that would prohibit adverse employment actions based on lawful medical marijuana use.  There is pending legislation in New Jersey to amend its medical marijuana law to prohibit discrimination against a qualifying medical marijuana patient, unless the employer can demonstrate by a preponderance of evidence that the employee’s lawful medical marijuana use impairs their ability to do their job.  So, in the near future, this decision may be very relevant in New Jersey.

At The Harman Firm, LLP, we support employees who use medical marijuana.  If you believe you have been discriminated against because of your disability or lawful use of medical marijuana, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.

 

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