All employers should maintain an employee handbook or similar policy statement that clearly sets out the employer’s position on drug and alcohol use. While federal laws relating to marijuana possession and use have not changed, many states have revised their statutes to legalize, decriminalize, or otherwise permit marijuana possession and use. This has caused some confusion for employers, who must balance the conflicting state and federal rules.

Over thirty states have enacted legislation allowing marijuana use in certain situations. In some states (California and Massachusetts, for example), medical and recreational use is permitted.  In many other states, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, only medical use is permitted.  A number of states have also adopted legislation that specifically protects marijuana users from termination from employment based solely on a positive test for marijuana. 

Massachusetts does not have such a statute. However, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently issued a ruling that greatly complicates the issue of how to deal with an employee who is using marijuana. In Barbuto vs. Advantage Sales and Marketing (July 17, 2017), the SJC ruled that an employee who had been terminated as a result of a positive marijuana test could bring a claim for handicap discrimination under the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute.  In Barbuto, the plaintiff was an employee of the defendant, who had a valid prescription for marijuana to help in treating Crohn’s disease.  After the employee was terminated because of a positive marijuana test, she brought a claim against the employer alleging, among other counts, a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation under the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute.  The trial court dismissed all of the employee’s claims.  On appeal, the SJC upheld the trial court’s dismissal of most of the claims, but held that the employee could bring a claim under the anti-discrimination statute for disability discrimination and a failure to accommodate.  The SJC then reversed the dismissal of that count and sent the matter back to the trial court.

The SJC was careful to point out that employers could limit or defeat such claims by showing that allowing marijuana use would cause an undue hardship on an employer’s business, such as where the permitted use would conflict with other requirements like the Federal Drug Free Workplace Act. The SJC also clearly stated that Massachusetts law does not require any employer to permit on-site marijuana use as an employee accommodation. Even with those limitations, however, the Barbuto ruling does create some landmines for employers.  Massachusetts employers should become very familiar with the marijuana laws applicable in all states in which they have employees, and should enact employment policies consistent with those laws (which may differ significantly from state to state).  In addition, employers should consider and adopt (and consistently apply) policies that address how a positive test is handled (including addressing any reasonable accommodation issues).  For now, in Massachusetts, an employer will need to show how accommodating an employee’s medically prescribed marijuana use creates an undue hardship on the employer, and employers wishing to prohibit all marijuana use will need to be able to show this.