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Proposal would protect medical marijuana patients from losing their jobs

California could soon join the growing number of states that protect most medical marijuana patients from being fired from their jobs if they test positive for cannabis.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, on Wednesday introduced a bill that would prevent companies from refusing to employ people simply because they use cannabis to ease an injury or illness.

“To be discriminated against by your employer because of the type of medicine you use is both inhumane and wrong,” Bonta said.

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. Medical cannabis is now permitted in 29 states plus Washington, D.C.

But only 11 states have laws in place to protect patients who consume marijuana – and California isn’t one of them.

Workers here can still get fired, or not hired, for having marijuana in their system. And unlike with alcohol or other drugs, marijuana be detected for days, weeks or even months, making existing drug tests ineffective at measuring whether workers were actually impaired by cannabis on the job.

The policy was solidified for medical patients in 2008, when the California Supreme Court ruled that a telecommunications company had a right to fire retired Air Force veteran Gary Ross over his medical marijuana use. The ruling was based, in part, on the fact that employment rights weren’t addressed in the state’s medical marijuana law.

Legislators passed a bill that year to overturn that ruling, despite opposition from law enforcement groups and the California Chamber of Commerce. But then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill, saying he was concerned about interfering in employment decisions.

Related: Marijuana may be legal but it can still get you fired

“Our current laws put workers with a medical recommendation for cannabis in a difficult bind,” said Jim Araby, executive director for the western branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which has a growing number of members in the cannabis industry.

As it stands, Araby said state law sends employees who are injured or ill the message that going out on workers’ compensation, or using prescription drugs such as opioids, is a better alternative than using medical marijuana recommended by a doctor.

An informal survey by Cal NORML, a cannabis legalization advocacy group that supports AB 2069, suggests the policy is pushing some Californians to use more opioids and other drugs.

Out of 385 medical marijuana patients surveyed so far by Cal NORML, 19 percent said they’ve been denied jobs because they tested positive for cannabis, and 10 percent said they’d been terminated for the same reason, said  Ellen Kemp, the group’s deputy director. More than two-thirds of the people surveyed said they stopped using medical marijuana because they feared drug testing, and one in five said they started using more opioids or other drugs because they knew those results wouldn’t get them fired.

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, speaks during a news conference on Jan. 9, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

As the opioid crisis builds, public and legal support for medical marijuana patients is growing.

In 2017, courts in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut ruled that employers can’t discriminate against workers for using medical cannabis.

Bonta’s Assembly Bill 2069 – co-authored by Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward – would add those protections for most California patients.

“We need to catch up and do right by patients,” Bonta said.

The bill argues there’s no scientific evidence that cannabis consumers are substandard employees. And it points out that federal authorities have never proven that drug testing improves workplace safety.

AB 2069 wouldn’t prevent companies from firing workers who are impaired on the job. And it wouldn’t cover employees who must be tested for marijuana under federal law, such as pilots, truck drivers, pipeline workers and boat crew members.

The bill also doesn’t cover recreational users of cannabis.

Proposition 64, which in 2016 legalized recreational cannabis in California, states that employers remain free to test workers for marijuana use before hiring them or at any point during their careers.

Bonta said protecting medical patients is a starting point. He said they want to move forward with a policy that they’re confident will pass this year, then build on it from there.

If the bill does pass, Bonta said he’s not particularly concerned about how it might incentivize some people who aren’t serious patients from staying in the medical marijuana system rather than moving to the newly legal recreational sector. He said he’s more concerned with keeping people away from opioids than with correcting a potentially inflated medical marijuana market.

Representatives for several organizations that opposed job protections for medical marijuana patients in 2008 — including the California Hospital Association, the California Employment Law Council and the California Police Chiefs Association — said they don’t yet have a position on Bonta’s bill.

The bill is expected to be introduced in the Assembly’s fiscal committee on March 10.


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