High court interprets the Washington State Medical Use of Marijuana Act


Patricia Johnson, KP News

As the debate remains unresolved in the state legislature over the fate of local medical marijuana dispensaries such as Green Health in Key Center, owner and operator Brian Pfister remains committed to providing for the well being and the protection of those individuals seeking medicinal marijuana.

“To place these patients in the same class as criminals such as sex offenders and require them to register is not necessary and I am against this,” Pfister said.

Moving towards more effective regulation of medical marijuana dispensaries, the above proposal continues to be controversial among proponents of the Washington Medical Use of Marijuana Act (MUMA).

In an effort to offer guidance on the interpretation and enforcement of the Act, the Supreme Court of Washington spoke definitively and found that an employee, authorized under state law to use marijuana for medical reasons, may be terminated for off-the-job marijuana use, in accordance with the employer’s policies.

In deciding Roe v. TeleTech Customer Care Management last month, justices handed down an 8-1 decision setting forth the obligations of an employer in accordance MUMA.  According to the majority, “Medical Use of Marijuana Act does not prohibit an employer from discharging an employee for medical marijuana use, nor does it provide a civil remedy against the employer. MUMA also does not proclaim a sufficient public policy to give rise to a civil action for wrongful termination for authorized use of medical marijuana.”

TeleTech Customer Care Management with offices in Bremerton terminated the employment of Jane Roe for failing to pass a drug test.  The provisions of the drug policy at issue require all employees to produce a negative drug test result and failure to do so will result in termination from employment.  Furthermore, the policy sets forth no exception for medical marijuana.  Prior to acknowledging the policy and submitting to the drug screen, Roe used marijuana to relieve debilitating and severe pain from migraine headaches.  She received authorization from her treating physician in compliance with state law and used medical marijuana only at home.

In finding that the employer had no duty to accommodate Roe’s medical marijuana use and therefore provide her continued employment, the Court reasoned, “Here, the purpose of MUMA is to insulate qualified patients and caregivers from criminal liability under state law, not to create an expansive right to use medical marijuana without regard to other restrictions.”

The majority acknowledged that the citizens of Washington enacted legislation by initiative in adopting Medical Use of Marijuana Act thereby “providing an affirmative defense against criminal prosecution of physicians for prescribing medical marijuana and for qualified patients and their designated primary caregivers for engaging in the medical use of marijuana.”

In seeking to interpret the intent of voters in the Medical Use of Marijuana Act as it applies to employers, the Court found compelling that there is only one reference to the workplace.  The Act reads,  “Nothing in this chapter requires any accommodation of any medical marijuana use in any place of employment, in any school bus or any school grounds, or in any youth center.”  The majority refused to expand the Act’s reach to impose a duty on the employer to protect employees engaged in medical marijuana use outside the workplace.

The Court failed to glean from the clear language of MUMA any clear public policy against employers enforcing its drug policies against employees engaged in the authorized use of medical marijuana under state law.  The majority therefore found that such employees have no actionable claims against employers, based on the provisions of the Washington State Medical Use of Marijuana Act.