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ACLU Appeals Medical Marijuana Case on Behalf of Cancer-Stricken Wal-Mart Employee

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April 28, 2011

This week, the ACLU filed a brief urging a federal appeals court to reinstate a 2010 lawsuit about the wrongful firing of Wal-Mart employee Joseph Casias for using medical marijuana in accordance with state law. In February, a U.S. district judge dismissed the case, but the ACLU is appealing, and our argument is anything but half-baked.

Casias has suffered for more than a decade from sinus cancer and a brain tumor in the back of his head and neck that was the size of a softball when it was first diagnosed. His condition has required extensive treatment and chemotherapy, interferes with his ability to speak and is a source of severe and constant pain. He sought medical relief from an oncologist who prescribed a pain medication that provided only minimal relief, but which also came with side-effects like severe nausea.

Despite the restrictions of his condition, however, he managed to work his way into a managerial position and was recognized as the 2008 associate of the year at the Battle Creek, Michigan, Wal-Mart store where he worked.

That same year, Michigan voters passed the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA), an initiative that protected use of the drug for medicinal purposes. It was after the law was passed that Casias’ oncologist recommended he try marijuana as a way to cope with his symptoms.

Casias complied with the new state law in gaining access to medical marijuana. He registered as a medical marijuana user with the Michigan Department of Community Health and only used it in the privacy of his home. In accordance with the law, Casias never once ingested marijuana at work, and never once did he work while under the influence of marijuana. His (again, legal) use of this new prescription paid off; he experienced “immediate and profound” relief of his symptoms — his pain decreased dramatically, the new medicine did not induce nausea and he was able to gain back some of the weight he had lost during treatment.

But none of this seemed to matter much to Wal-Mart, which fired the father of two after he tested positive for marijuana.

In dismissing our case in February, the judge ruled the law doesn’t mandate that businesses like Wal-Mart make accommodations for employees. But in fact, the MMMA protects medical marijuana patients from “disciplinary action by a business.”

Last year, the ACLU pointed out that under the MMMA, employees registered with the state are protected against “arrest, prosecution, or penalty in any manner” for medical marijuana use. If Joseph can be fired for legally using medical marijuana, what does that mean for other medical marijuana patients seeking protection under MMMA? Does it mean that patients should have to settle for less-effective medications in order to keep their jobs? According to ACLU lawyer Scott Michelman, that prospect is nothing short of unacceptable. He points out:

A choice between adequate pain relief and gainful employment is an untenable one that no patient should ever be forced to make.Yet Wal-Mart forced Joseph to pay a stiff and unfair price for using a medicine allowed under state law that has had a life-changing positive effect for him.

Casias did his part in complying with the law, now it’s his employer’s turn to do the same.

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