Marijuana Employment Rights Bill Advances In California

california marijuana employee rights

By Steve Elliott of Toke of the Town

The State Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 on Tuesday, approving a bill that would protect California's medical marijuana patients from discrimination at the workplace.

Senate Bill 129 was introduced by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) in January as an attempt to clarify the legislative intent of the state's Medical Marijuana Program Act. While clearly establishing a medical marijuana patient's right to work, SB 129 continues to prohibit on-the-job impairment.

The bill now moves to the Senate floor for an as-of-yet unscheduled vote.

"When Californians approved the compassionate use of cannabis, they never intended for it to apply only to unemployed people," said Sen. Leno. "With unemployment at record high rates, we should be doing everything we can to keep productive and responsible members of the workforce in their jobs."

Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a medical marijuana advocacy group and a sponsor of the bill, testified along with others in support of SB 129 at last Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

?SB 129 would reverse a 2008 California Supreme Court ruling in Ross v. RagingWire that granted employers the right to fire or refuse to hire workers with a physician's recommendation for medical marijuana. This decision has impacted hundreds of thousands of patients across the state.

Within two weeks after the court ruling, then-Assemblyman Mark Leno introduced AB 2279, an identical bill to SB 129, which had strong support from a broad coalition of disability rights, labor, medical, and legal groups. AB 2279 passed both houses of the California Legislature in 2008, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

With Gov. Jerry Brown, presumably more friendly to medical marijuana patients' rights, now in office, the drive for employment protection could have a much happier ending this time.

The bill leaves intact existing state law that prohibits medical marijuana consumption at the workplace or during working hours and exempts from the law "safety-sensitive" positions such as health care providers, school bus drivers, and operators of heavy equipment in order to protect employers from liability and to protect public safety.

Despite the claims of opponents, SB 129 does not violate or impede federal "Drug Free Workplace" laws, which narrowly deal with workplace use and possession.

Peter O'Neal, a former assistant manager at Walgreens, testified at the Senate Judiciary hearing last week about his employment experience as a medical marijuana patient. After finding out O'Neal was a legal patient, Walgreens forced him to participate in "drug rehabilitation" classes in order to keep his job.

Not only was O'Neal eventually fired for his status as a medical marijuana patient, but Walgreens also blocked his effort to collect unemployment benefits.

"If this bill had been law a couple of years ago, I'd be a manager at Walgreens right now," testified O'Neal. "Instead, I'm unemployed because of flawed public policy."

Since it began recording instances of employment discrimination in 2005, ASA has received hundreds of such reports from patients across California.

"Why must sick Californians be denied their civil rights," asked ASA California Director Don Duncan, "and be forced to live with the risk of losing their job due to their choice of medication?"

Employment rights legislation SB 129 [PDF]

Fact Sheet on SB 129 [PDF]