Medical Marijuana and Federally Protected Classes


As medical marijuana works its way across the country – 36 states and the District of Columbia now allow it – it is creating some interesting questions relating to federally protected classes. Given that medical marijuana is recognized as an appropriate treatment for certain conditions, should patients with valid prescriptions be protected against discrimination?

Adding to the confusion is the fact that some states have designated protected classes that go above and beyond federal statutes. For example, partners in same-sex marriages are considered a protected class in some states. As is normally the case when federal and state regulations conflict, there are no easy answers to problems arising from medical cannabis in the workplace.

Definition of a Protected Class

A protected class is a recognized group of people who, because of a shared trait or characteristic, would otherwise be subject to discrimination in the workplace, housing, etc. Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against these classes. For example, an employer cannot consider a job applicant’s ethnicity when making hiring decisions.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against protected classes based on:

  • age
  • disability
  • ethnicity (race)
  • military service
  • national origin
  • pregnancy
  • religious belief
  • sex (gender).

The disability protected class is troublesome inasmuch as it creates a conflict. People with disabilities cannot be discriminated against in terms of employment. But consider someone whose disability requires a prescription opioid. If the individual’s medication interferes with their ability to perform on the job, private employers are allowed to exercise the appropriate policies. The person could be terminated, disciplined, or reassigned.

Not a Protected Class

As explained by Deseret Wellness, a Utah provider of medical marijuana in Park City, medical cannabis users are not a protected class at the federal level. They also aren’t protected under Utah law. The reasoning is simple: cannabis remains on the federal government’s Schedule I list of controlled substances.

For all intents and purposes, this makes marijuana and its derivatives illegal under federal law. It would be impossible for Washington regulators to make medical cannabis users a protected class without conflicting with existing rules.

Medical Cannabis Creates Questions

Whether a medical cannabis patient lives in Park City, Utah or a major metropolitan area like New York or Los Angeles, medical cannabis is creating workplace questions that have no easy answers. Employer policies may conflict with cultural attitudes toward marijuana. But most states give employers the right to devise and implement policies as they see fit.

Where does this leave employees? First and foremost, it leaves them with the responsibility of learning, knowing, and understanding company policies relating to marijuana use. Though doing so could create uncomfortable circumstances, employees are also advised to discuss such policies with their supervisors if they have questions.

Any such questions may not have easy answers. Still, it is up to employers and patients to work things out among themselves. Federal and state courts are not going to intervene as long as an employer is not discriminating against a protected class of employee.

Protection in the Future

There are rumors circulating in Washington that marijuana is destined to either be rescheduled or completely decriminalized if not soon, then in the very near future. If that is the case, the possibility of medical cannabis users becoming a federally protected class at some point in the future exists. How soon that would happen is anyone’s guess.

For now, medical cannabis patients are not a protected class. They can be prevented from working for the federal government and some state governments. They can be subject to disciplinary policies enacted by private employers. For right or wrong, that’s the way things are right now.

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