Will PA's new medical marijuana law affect business drug testing policies?

Date: May 02, 2016 Last Edit: May 04, 2016

This guest column is provided by Denise Elliott, Andrew Levy, Adam R. Long and Kathleen Duffy Bruder of the McNees Wallace and Nurick law firm.

On April 17, 2016, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed the Medical Marijuana Act (MMA), which legalizes medicinal marijuana in Pennsylvania. The MMA, which takes effect on May 17, 2016, includes various provisions related to employment, and we have received many questions regarding what employers must, can and cannot do as a result of the new law. The simple answer is that, for the time being, we do not believe that employers are required to take immediate action. No immediate changes to your drug and alcohol policies or how you deal with drugs in the workplace are necessary for now, but stay tuned.

The MMA requires the Department of Health (“Department”) to promulgate full regulations within 18 months, and the Department is also required to begin publishing temporary regulations no later than six months from the Act’s effective date. Accordingly, we expect further guidance before the end of 2016 and anticipate frequent changes to the rules and regulations surrounding the MMA and its interpretation thereafter.

So, what do you need to know about the law now?

  • The MMA contains an employment anti-discrimination provision that states as follows:

“No employer may discharge, threaten, refuse to hire or otherwise discriminate or retaliate against any employee regarding an employee’s compensation, terms, conditions, location or privileges solely on the basis of such employee’s status as an individual who is certified to use medical marijuana. MMA §2103(b)(1).”

This anti-discrimination provision seems clear; however, it does raise some unanswered questions.  Although more than 20 other states have legalized medicinal marijuana, for purposes of the MMA, an “individual who is certified to use medical marijuana” seemingly refers only to individuals certified under Pennsylvania law. It is unclear whether an employee who is certified in another state would be entitled to the protection of §2103(b)(1).  Also, keep in mind that it will take some time for Pennsylvania to implement the regulatory framework to begin the certification process, set up dispensaries and begin actually distributing marijuana.

  • Employers are not required to accommodate the use of medical marijuana at work and employers retain the ability to discipline employees for using marijuana at work. Along these lines, the MMA provides:

“Nothing in this Act shall require an employer to make an accommodation for the use of medical marijuana on the property or premises of any place of employment. This Act shall in no way limit an employer’s ability to discipline an employee for being under the influence of medical marijuana in the workplace or for working while under the influence of medical marijuana when the employee’s conduct falls below the standard of care normally accepted for that position. MMA §2103(b)(2).”

While employers retain the right to discipline users of medical marijuana if they are “under the influence” at work, we do not yet know what is meant by “under the influence.” It remains to be seen which definition of “under the influence” will apply to potential employee discipline.

  • The MMA prohibits certified users from performing certain safety-sensitive jobs while “under the influence” of medicinal marijuana, including: (1) operating or being in physical control of chemicals which require a permit issued by the federal government, state government, federal agency or state agency; (2) operating or being in control of high-voltage electricity or any other public utility; (3) performing any employment duties at heights or in confined spaces, including, but not limited to, mining; (4) performing tasks that the employer deems life-threatening to either the employee or any employees of the employer; and (5) performing any duty that could result in a public health or safety risk. MMA §510.
  • The MMA does not require employers to “commit an act that would put the employer or any person acting on its behalf in violation of federal law.” MMA §2103(b)(3). For example, an employer would not be required to accommodate medicinal marijuana use if such accommodation violates federal DOT regulations.
  • The MMA does not, currently, supersede an employer’s rights under the ADA. For example, under current interpretations of the law, employers are not prohibited by the ADA from discharging an employee who tests positive for marijuana, even if the use is pursuant to a valid prescription. This could change, however, as the MMA evolves and as we further understand how “under the influence” will be defined in Pennsylvania. Further, the EEOC may change its position on the protected nature of medical marijuana as more states allow its use.

As with any new law, we have much left to learn. The McNees Labor and Employment Group will be closely monitoring the implementation of the temporary and permanent MMA regulations. We will keep you advised as things develop and are hopeful that the temporary regulations will address some of our unanswered questions, including: (1) what is meant by “under the influence;” and (2) whether the anti-discrimination provisions apply to those certified to use medical marijuana in other states. In the meantime, should you have specific questions about the law, your policies or your employees, please do not hesitate to contact any member of the McNees L&E Group.



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