Another Court Okays Firing an Employee for Legal Marijuana Use

You can get fired for cannabis. We need to get that changed.
You can get fired for cannabis. We need to get that changed.

Yet another court recently ruled that an employer may terminate an employee for his or her marijuana use that is legal under state law — this time in New Mexico. We’ve blogged on this topic before, so much so that we are starting to sound like a broken record (for just a sampling, check out Fired for Cannabis: Still Just Fine in Oregon and Alaska; Yes, You Can Get Fired for LEGALLY Smoking Marijuana; and Firing Employees for Medical Cannabis: Colorado Supreme Court Says That’s Okay).

The facts should seem familiar. Rojerio Garcia suffers from HIV/AIDS. His treatment regimen, recommended by his physicians, includes the use of medical cannabis. Garcia has a valid patient card under New Mexico’s Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act (“CUA”). When Garcia applied and interviewed for a management position at Tractor Supply Company, he disclosed the fact of his HIV/AIDS status and that he uses medical marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of that disease. Garcia was hired but then quickly terminated, after a drug test indicated the presence of cannabis metabolites. Garcia then brought suit against Tractor Supply, claiming the had been fired on the basis of his medical condition and his doctor-recommended cannabis use, in violation of the New Mexico Human Rights Act.

Tractor Supply promptly filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that neither the CUA nor the Human Rights Act obligated it to accommodate Garcia’s medical marijuana use. There was no question that  HIV/AIDS meets the definition of “serious medical condition” within the Human Rights Act. There was also no question the CUA did not provide Garcia with a cause of action against his employer. Rather, Garcia’s theory was that the CUA essentially embodies New Mexico public policy that medical cannabis use is accepted, and that that policy combined with HIV/AIDS’ status under the Human Rights Act creates a requirement that an employer accommodate an employee’s use. Tractor Supply contended that the CUA created no such accommodation requirement and that Garcia was not terminated because of his serious medical condition; he was terminated because he tested positive for a substance illegal under federal law.

Garcia tried to argue that because New Mexico courts have held that New Mexico’s Workers’ Compensation Act allows for reimbursement of medical marijuana, they might also conclude that medical marijuana should be a required accommodation under the Human Rights Act. The court was not persuaded however, instead giving credence to Tractor Supply’s argument that there is a big difference between requiring an insurer to reimburse for a doctor-recommended treatment and mandating an employer accommodate the same treatment. In particular, the court seemed to like Tractor Supply’s argument that, as a national company with stores in 49 states, it shouldn’t have to create a specific workplace drug policy for each state with legalized medical cannabis, especially when federal law still prohibits its use. The court was adamant that Garcia was not fired due to HIV/AIDS, and that failing the drug test was not the result of a serious medical condition. Accordingly, it dismissed Garcia’s case in its entirety.

Without express language in CUA to require employers’ accommodation of medical cannabis, Garcia’s case was undoubtedly an uphill battle. Tractor Supply didn’t do him any favors when it removed the case from state court (where Garcia had instigated his claim, and which was more likely to be friendly to Garcia) to federal court (where the court would likely be more swayed by the federal CSA). But we still think the court took a rather narrow view when disconnecting Garcia’s termination from his medical condition. True, medical cannabis use is not the result of HIV/AIDS, but in this case it was certainly related. We also think the court’s concern over the possibility that Tractor Supply would have to adapt its workplace drug policies to reflect differing marijuana laws in different states rings a little hollow — national companies like Tractor Supply or Target or Holiday Inn are always going to have to deal with states’ varying employment laws. Still, the court is correct when it says Garcia was asking the court to affirmatively oblige Tractor Supply to permit activity prohibited by the CSA. Until federal law changes, we expect more employees like Garcia to be fired for their cannabis use.