Pennsylvania’s New Medical Marijuana Law and the Workplace

Pennsylvania's New Medical Marijuana Law and the Workplace

Employers in Pennsylvania may or may not be enjoying high times as that state’s Medical Marijuana Act (“MMA”) went into effect on May 17, 2016.  This new law allows patients to use marijuana to treat autism, cancer, HIV/AIDS, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other ailments.  Governor Tom Wolf signed the MMA into law on April 17, 2016, just three days before one of the most important dates on the calendar for marijuana enthusiasts.

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The MMA does not allow all Pennsylvania citizens who feel under the weather to ingest marijuana however they like.  On the contrary, the MMA allows medical marijuana to be dispensed only to individuals who both have been issued an identification card from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and obtained a certification from a medical provider.  Nonetheless, Pennsylvania employers (like those in other states that have enacted similar laws) now will face some hazy dilemmas in terms of their drug-free workplace policies.

That is because the MMA contains some potent anti-discrimination provisions but also creates some cloudy ambiguities.  For instance, the new law makes it illegal for an employer to refuse to hire, threaten, or discharge a prospective or current employee “solely on the basis of such employee’s status as an individual who is certified to use medical marijuana.”  On the other hand, the MMA does not specify whether employers may rely upon a positive drug test to impose an adverse employment action.

Meanwhile, the MMA does not require employers to refrain from imposing discipline “when the employee’s conduct falls below the standard of care normally accepted for that position.” The MMA also allows employers to discipline an employee who is “under the influence” of medical marijuana at work, yet it does not clarify whether a positive drug test could be used as evidence of impairment on the job.

This new law gives some latitude to employers with safety-sensitive work environments.  In particular, employers may prohibit employees from performing a number of tasks while under the influence of marijuana.  Such tasks include operating or controlling certain chemicals or high-voltage electricity, performing duties in dangerous places, or performing tasks that may put the life of the employee or the lives of others in jeopardy.  The law also states that employees in certain safety-sensitive positions may not have more than ten nanograms of active tetrahydrocannabis per milliliter of blood in serum.

Still, this list of exceptions could be interpreted as barring employers from restricting employees covered by the MMA in other common-sense ways.  Another budding problem stems from the lack of clarity as to how employers can ascertain whether an employee is impaired by the influence of marijuana while on the job.  Some observations may be helpful, but few appear to offer anything conclusive.  For instance, an employee who reeks of marijuana smoke might be subject to discipline.  That is because smoking marijuana in Pennsylvania will remain illegal; the MMA allows marijuana to be ingested only through alternative delivery systems such as pills or ointments.

Other observations might be helpful, such as the tell-tale red or glassy eyes or some level of confusion or distraction on the part of the employee.  But such circumstances may not conclusively identify the presence or cause of impairment.  And while blood-alcohol tests may be helpful in confirming how inebriated a worker is at the time of the test, drug tests for marijuana are not so precise in measuring the individual’s level of impairment at the time of the test.

For example, urine testing may reveal that the employee used marijuana at some point in the weeks prior to the test, but such tests typically cannot pinpoint whether such use occurred on a specific day.  Similarly, saliva testing may be able to detect more recent use – albeit without providing a absolute confirmation as to whether the employee was under the “influence of marijuana” on the job.

Beyond the ambiguities created by the MMA, its very enforceability may be subject to challenge – since it appears to be in direct conflict with federal laws that illegalize the use of marijuana.  Until the tension between federal law and Pennsylvania law is resolved by the courts, employers in the Keystone State should take some steps to keep their worksites from going up in smoke.

The first step would be to review and, if necessary, revise applicable handbooks and employment policies to make sure that they are compliant with both federal and Pennsylvania law.  At the same time, employers should consider reviewing their job descriptions for safety-sensitive positions.  Likewise, it would be advisable for employers to determine how positive marijuana tests will be handled.  In that regard, when an employee tests positive for marijuana, it might be wise to have appropriate managers designated and trained to communicate with the employee to ascertain whether he or she has the necessary documentation to be covered by the MMA.  Of course, it also would be prudent to consult with legal counsel to ensure that workplace policies and contemplated disciplinary actions do not run afoul of this new law.

Contributor: Brendan J. Begley, Attorney at Law | Weintraub Tobin