What if the state legislature legalizes use of medical marijuana? Your employer can still sack you for using it, says the California Supreme Court.
In a 5-2 decision, it upheld Thursday a lower court verdict against former Air Force mechanic, Gary Ross, who injured his lower back in a fall off an airplane wing in 1983.
In 1999, a doctor, acting under the state's Compassionate Use Act, prescribed marijuana in an effort to relieve Ross's pain.
Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana use for any purpose is illegal. But the federal law has not stopped a number of states from enacting medical marijuana legislation. California was one of the first.
In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act, legalizing marijuana for medical use.
It permits seriously ill Californians to use marijuana, provided they first obtain a doctor's recommendation. Proposition 215 also gives doctors a legal defense against professional or legal sanctions for recommending marijuana use.
Two years after he began using the drug, Ross was fired from a job as a systems administrator with a telecommunications company after failing a drug test.
He went on to file a suit, contending that his dismissal violated state laws barring wrongful termination and discrimination based on disability.
Ross' lawyer, Stewart Katz, argued his client had just the kind of illness Californians had in mind when they voted to legalize medical marijuana under Proposition 215.
"It seemed to us an absurdity where the people approved the use of marijuana for those medically in need of it so they can live as normal a life as possible, given their afflictions," Katz said, "and then you say that you can't still keep working."
Katz also argued that under California laws employers must make accommodations for employees with disabilities.
But the state's highest court firmly rejected such arguments saying that the act dealt solely with criminal prosecution, not terms of employment.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative, free-enterprise group, praised the decision as a victory for "safe, drug-free workplaces."
"You don't want employers to be trying to figure who is impaired and who is not," said Deborah J. La Fetra, a lawyer for the group.
"They need to have a bright-line, no-drugs-in-the-workplace rule."
"That's just ridiculous," says California Assemblyman Mark Leno. Within hours of the court's decision, the San Francisco Democrat said he'll formally introduce legislation within the next two weeks to protect the employment rights of medical marijuana users.
"Marijuana should not be treated any differently than any prescribed drug," says Prof. Marsha Cohen, who specializes in food and drug law at the University of California Hastings Law School.
Even if Leno succeeds in getting those employment protections for California medical marijuana users, the legal limbo won't end, she says.
"They might be able to change California statutes, but then further questions arise. What if you're a federal contractor and you're required to comply with federal statutes, which require you to fire anybody who flunks a blood test, even for marijuana, even with a doctor's note," she says.
Cohen says as long as the conflict between state and federal drug laws persists, the lives of medical marijuana users like Ross will be unsettled.
Ross, now 46 and a host at outdoor camps in the Sacramento area, said he never intended to use marijuana on the job, only to relieve pain and help him sleep. But he said he was not surprised at the judges' ruling.
"Their mind is stuck in 1967," he said in a telephone interview. "They just say, 'My mind was made up in the 1960s, and that's the way it's going to stay.' "