Earlier this week in Michigan, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart that has significant implications for the thousands of seriously ill Americans across the country who legally use medical marijuana under state law, but still face employer discrimination because of the continued stigma attached to the medicine that brings them relief.
The plaintiff in the case is Joseph Casias, a 30-year-old married father of two, who was wrongfully fired from his job at a Battle Creek, Mich., Wal-Mart after he tested positive for marijuana following a drug screen. I emphasize the word "wrongfully," because Casias is a legal, registered medical marijuana patient in Michigan; he takes marijuana on the recommendation of his oncologist to help relieve the effects of sinus cancer and an inoperable brain tumor that was the size of a softball when diagnosed. This treatment — which Casias says relieves his symptoms more effectively than, and without any of the side effects caused by, his previous medication — became a legal option for Casias in 2008, after Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana law that was drafted and sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project. In accordance with that law, Casias never used marijuana while on the job, nor did he ever work under the influence of marijuana. In fact, during his time at Wal-Mart, Casias was able to rise from an entry-level stocking position to a managerial role, and along the way was named the store's 2008 Associate of the Year.
But Casias's diligence meant nothing to Wal-Mart. In clear violation of Michigan's voter-approved law, which states that medical marijuana patients "shall not be subject to ... [any] penalty in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, including but not limited to civil penalty or disciplinary action by a business," Wal-Mart fired Casias simply because he had marijuana metabolites in his system, which says nothing about whether he was under the influence of marijuana at the time. Wal-Mart even had the temerity to challenge his unemployment benefits, though they retracted their opposition and issued a hollow statement calling the situation "unfortunate" after a barrage of protests that followed MPP's call for a nationwide boycott.
The Casias case will have great significance not only for Joseph's own life and livelihood but also for thousands of patients around the country in the 14 states and the District of Columbia where medical marijuana is legal. All too often, even after state law and a physician sanction a patient's use of marijuana — a legitimate and safe medicine backed by countless studies, medical professionals, and public health groups — employers still punish them for it. But no patient should be forced to choose between adequate pain relief and gainful employment, and no employer should be allowed to intrude upon private medical choices made by employees in consultation with their doctors.
Imagine, for a moment, if employees were similarly reprimanded for having any other legal medication in their system. Surely Wal-Mart wouldn't fire someone for following their doctor's advice to take, during after-work hours, any of the prescription painkillers sold daily in Wal-Marts all over the country, the majority of which carry far more harmful risks than marijuana. Yet that's essentially what happened to Casias. He was punished for following his doctor's advice to take a legal drug that provided him relief. And sadly, that same injustice has affected untold numbers of legal medical marijuana patients across the country, the majority of whom remain silent about their experiences because they fear compromising their chances at future employment.
An investigation earlier this year by The Denver Post revealed stories about school teachers, HR employees, and government workers who lost their jobs not because of any performance problems, but because they were medical marijuana patients. While the language of laws vary from state to state — Michigan's employee protection is one of the clearest, while others, like Colorado's, specify that employers are not required to accommodate medical marijuana use — the problem remains the same. Reliable workers are losing their jobs because the medicine they take is held to a different standard than other medications. In essence, this creates a new underclass of people and discriminates against them for trying to lead normal lives. That is, until the courts affirm a patient's right to treat his or her condition in any law-abiding way that they and their doctor see fit — and still remain gainfully employed. The need for such patient protection will become only more urgent as time goes on: in 2010 alone, more than a dozen new states considered medical marijuana legislation. That's because it's becoming harder and harder for officials to deny the mounting body of evidence confirming that, for many conditions, marijuana is safe and effective medicine.
Medical marijuana patients already face enough challenges trying to treat often life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer, AIDS, and multiple sclerosis. They shouldn't have to worry about their jobs as well.