Medical pot creates workplace dilemma

By chillinwill · Nov 2, 2009 ·
  1. chillinwill
    Steven Karapandza says his use of prescription marijuana to help ease the pain of daily migraine headaches is none of his boss' business.

    He never smokes pot on the job. He doesn't come to work high, and he gets his work done without fail, he said.

    "In my mind, it's like any other medication," said Karapandza, 28, a Sterling Heights resident and cell phone repairman. "You wouldn't go up to your boss and tell him you've got a prescription for Vicodin."

    Karapandza is among 5,108 Michiganders registered as medical marijuana users since a new law passed last fall by voters took effect in April.

    Another 2,092 people have been approved as caregivers. About 1,100 applications have been denied under the law that permits marijuana prescriptions for pain relief among people who are chronically and terminally ill.

    For employers, the issue is less clear-cut than the way Karapandza sees it.

    "It's hard enough to run a business," said Kurt Sherwood, an attorney with Miller Canfield, a big Detroit-based law firm that held a seminar last week addressing employment issues, including medical marijuana. "I can see this creating a nightmare scenario."

    Test? Hire? Fire? Medical pot users stump employers

    Employers are facing tough issues as they try to navigate the state's fledgling medical marijuana law, such as the difference between "smoke" and "ingest."

    Or whether company policies on drug testing still apply in a state where 63% of voters approved a new law last fall allowing medical use of marijuana.

    During an employment seminar hosted last week by the Miller Canfield law firm in Troy, business owners heard they're in limbo, at least for now.

    Since the law took effect in April, more than 7,200 people have been registered either as users of medical marijuana or their caregivers. So far, no employee or job applicant has filed a lawsuit saying he or she was fired or denied a job because of a positive drug test.

    "We check the filings every day," said attorney Kurt McCamman of Miller Canfield. "We just don't know where Michigan is headed."

    There are 13 states, including Michigan, that have approved decriminalization of medical marijuana use. In the lawsuits filed by employees fired for having positive drug tests -- even though the employees were approved as medical marijuana users -- so far all have been decided in favor of the employers.

    Michigan's law is confusing, McCamman said, with conflicting language on whether a medical marijuana user is protected against disciplinary action.

    One section of the law says a registered user can't be "subject to arrest, prosecution or penalty in any manner or denied any right or privilege including ... disciplinary action by a business ... for the medical use of marijuana."

    Another portion of the law says "nothing in this act shall be construed to require an employer to accommodate the ingestion of marijuana in any workplace or any employee working while under the influence of marijuana."

    A third section says no one can possess or use medical marijuana on a school bus or on school grounds, but smoking pot is expressly prohibited only on public transportation or in any public place. It's unclear, McCamman said, whether it's OK for a certified user to eat, for example, marijuana-laced brownies in a public place.

    "Our advice is you need to continue to enforce your regular rules because if you don't you're opening up a Pandora's box," said Miller Canfield attorney Kurt Sherwood.

    Clouding the issue even more is a decision earlier this month by the U.S. Justice Department not to pursue criminal charges against medical marijuana producers and users in states where it's legal.

    "That's a very significant retreat from federal policy," said Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Institute for a Drug Free Workplace. "Marijuana is a dangerous drug that detrimentally affects the workplace. It has impacts on health care costs, productivity, accidents and employee turnover."

    Gary Francisco, executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Project, which pushed for passage of the law last year, said he's not so concerned about the law's implication in the workplace.

    "Nobody is arguing that we should be impaired in the workplace," he said. "We're more concerned about uneven enforcement by police."

    November 2, 2009
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