By Bill Laitner
In a breakthrough decision for those who say marijuana is medicine and not a dangerous drug, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Friday that workers who are state-approved users of medical marijuana should get unemployment compensation if fired solely for testing positive for drugs.
“It’s a very favorable decision for the civil rights of employees in Michigan,” said Matt Abel, a Detroit lawyer and senior partner of Cannabis Counsel, a law firm that focuses on marijuana cases.
But Rich Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said the ruling — and the use of medical marijuana in general — present “a real dilemma” for employers.
“There’s a serious question of workplace safety when people may use medical marijuana before they come to work” and then operate machinery or do other tasks that could endanger others, Studley said.
He said he hoped the ruling would be appealed. The Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief in the case in opposition to allowing jobless benefits to medical-pot users.
Michigan has had numerous cases of workers who, after receiving years of good performance evaluations, were terminated when they failed on-the-job drug tests because of their medical marijuana use, Abel said.
“This decision is another acknowledgment that medical-marijuana users’ rights have been unfairly infringed.
“They still can be fired for medical-marijuana use — even off the job, which we think is wrong. But now, at least they can’t be barred from unemployment benefits for that reason alone,” said Abel, who also is the executive director of Michigan NORML, the state’s chapter of a nationwide group that favors legalizing the drug.
Friday’s decision applies only to Michiganders who are state-registered users of the drug. The decision affirmed lower court decisions that the state’s medical marijuana law preempted its unemployment law.
A three-judge Appeals Court panel found that three state courts rightly reversed a decision by the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission to deny three workers their compensation after they were fired by their employers for testing positive for marijuana.
The decision said that a provision of Michigan’s medical marijuana act, passed by voters in 2008, prohibits penalties for those who use medical marijuana legally.
The decision encompassed separate cases from across the state in which three employees had been fired from their jobs after allegedly violating their employers’ worksite policies by testing positive for marijuana. Each possessed a state-issued medical marijuana card, demonstrating that a medical doctor had approved their use of the drug to treat a health condition.
Administrative law judges in each case had ruled in favor of forklift operator Rick Braska, CT technician Jenine Kemp and furniture-repair technician Stephen Kudzia.
“This is not the ultimate victory but it’s a big step in the right direction,” said medical-marijuana user Steven Greene, 47, of Lyon Township.
“Right now, marijuana is still classified with the federal government as a Schedule I dangerous drug, the same as heroin, which is so destructive to people’s health. That’s keeping a lot of society from accepting it and keeping a lot of employers from accepting it,” said Greene, a candidate for trustee in Lyon Township.