Although he lives in a state where medical marijuana is legal, a federal court ruled on Wednesday that a Michigan man could be terminated by his employer for testing positive for the drug.
Doctors diagnosed Joseph Casias with sinus cancer and an inoperable brain tumor at the age of 17. After Michigan legalized the use of medical marijuana in 2008, Casias’s oncologist recommended that he try the drug marijuana to relieve both his pain and the side effects of other prescribed pain medications.
Casias used marijuana during the final months of his five-year employment at a Wal-Mart in Battle Creek, Michigan. Although the drug proved beneficial, Casias made certain never to use it on the job or come to work under the influence.
However, after Casias was injured on the job in Nov. 2009, Wal-Mart company policy required he be administered a drug test as a routine measure.
Unsurprisingly, Casias tested positive for marijuana. Wal-Mart fired him a week later.
Casias, represented by the ACLU, sued Wal-Mart for wrongful discharge and violation of Michigan’s Medical Marihuana Act, arguing that the law prohibits a business from sanctioning a patient legally using the drug.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan ruled that Wal-Mart did not violate Michigan law by firing Casias. On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
In a split 2-1 ruling against Casias, the court focused on the following portion of Michigan’s medical marijuana law: “A qualifying patient … shall not be subject to arrest or … disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau …”
Casias and his attorneys argued that the law prohibits “disciplinary action by a business” against a patient using legal medical marijuana.
Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, explained Casias’ argument to The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“We paid attention to the fact that there’s a disjunctive separating ‘business’ from the words that follow it, ‘occupational or professional,’” he said.
Edwards provided the DCNF a copy of the ACLU’s brief, which further explained, “the use of ‘or’ instead of a comma between ‘business’ and ‘occupational’ signifies that ‘business’ is to be read independently from ‘occupational or professional licensing board or bureau.’”
The court, however, read the statute differently and ruled against Casias on a different interpretation of the grammar.
It found that the statute is referring to a series of three types of licensing boards and bureaus — business, occupational, and professional.
Accordingly, the court reasoned that the statute merely prohibited disciplinary action from different varieties of licensing boards and not a private business.
Since it saw no legal protection against termination in the statute, the court found no reason to dispute Wal-Mart’s firing of Casias. However, the court stated that the law does protect Michigan citizens from criminal prosecution.
Edwards criticized this narrow interpretation of Michigan law, telling the DNCF, “We don’t feel that the court really addressed in a particularly detailed and analytic way the wording of the statute.”
He also accused the court of undercutting the Michigan legislature, explaining, “It obviously would seem to undermine the intent of passing the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act that allows sick patients with debilitating or painful conditions to access the medicine but then somehow not protect them from this kind of severe disciplinary action from an employer.”
Absent an agreement by either the entire Sixth Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal, Wednesday’s ruling will be final.
Edwards would not confirm whether Casias and the ACLU would try to appeal the case, but he did indicate they “are seriously considering that option.”
Edwards also suggested there might be a legislative solution. He sees this as “an invitation to the Michigan legislature [and] Michigan citizens to enact legislation” that is “more explicit in protecting medical marijuana patients” so “they don’t have to make a choice between gainful employment, paying their rent, and their career … and treating symptoms of debilitating diseases.”
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