The United States District Court for the District of New Mexico recently clarified the issue of whether employers need to accommodate medical marijuana usage by employees with disabilities pursuant to the New Mexico Human Rights Act (NMHRA). In Garcia v. Tractor Supply Co., --- F.Supp.3d ---, No. CV 15-00735 WJ/WPL, 2016 WL 93717 (D.N.M. Jan. 7, 2016), appeal dismissed (Mar. 25, 2016), the Court held that employers do not need to accommodate medical marijuana use under the NMHRA.

Background

The Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, § 26-2B-1 NMSA et seq., legalizes the appropriate use of medical marijuana in New Mexico. The purpose of this law is to “allow the beneficial use of medical cannabis … for alleviating symptoms caused by debilitating medical conditions.” § 26-2B-2 NMSA. All marijuana usage remains illegal under federal law. This conflict created confusion for employers because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the NMHRA require employers to accommodate their employees’ serious medical conditions unless an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

Until recently, New Mexico law provided no guidance as to whether employers needed to accommodate off-site medical marijuana use that does not negatively affect job performance, i.e. by ignoring positive drug tests of card- carrying employees who produce adequate work. New Mexico public policy on medical marijuana was seemingly inconsistent. In Vialpando v. Ben’s Auto. Services, 2014- NMCA-084, the Court of Appeals held that an employer must reimburse an injured worker for medical marijuana under the Workers’ Compensation Act. But in Smith v. Presbyterian Healthcare Services, D-202-CV-201403906 (New Mexico state court), the court held that an employer could fire a medical marijuana using employee for failing a drug test where the employee did not inform the employer of her disability or request an accommodation. This case did not resolve whether  employers need to accommodate off-site medical marijuana use for employees who do request accommodations.

New Decision: Garcia v. Tractor Supply Company

In Garcia v. Tractor Supply Company, the District of New Mexico federal court held that employers do not need to accommodate off-site medical marijuana use under the NMHRA.

In that case, an employee suffering from HIV/AIDS, a “serious medical condition” under the NMHRA, applied for a job at Tractor Supply Company. During the interview process, Mr. Garcia informed Tractor Supply  Company both of his HIV status and of his participation in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program. Tractor Supply Company hired Mr. Garcia, but quickly discharged him after he tested positive for cannabis during a routine drug test.

The court’s holding had two main parts. First, the court analyzed New Mexico state law. It reasoned that Tractor Supply Company did not terminate Mr. Garcia “because of or on the basis of his serious medical condition. Testing positive for marijuana was not because of Mr. Garcia’s serious medical condition (HIV/AIDS), nor could testing positive for marijuana be seen as conduct that resulted from his serious medical condition. Using marijuana is not a manifestation of HIV/AIDS.” While the Court acknowledged that medical marijuana is compensable under New Mexico workers’ compensation laws, it was more persuaded by Tractor Supply Company’s practical argument that if Mr. Garcia prevailed, it would need to modify its drug policy for each state with unique laws on marijuana legalization, decriminalization, or authorization for medical use.

Second, on grounds of federal preemption, the court held that requiring employers to accommodate medical marijuana use under the NMHRA would conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”). The court reasoned, “[t]o affirmatively require Tractor Supply to accommodate Mr. Garcia's illegal drug use would mandate Tractor Supply to permit the very conduct the CSA proscribes.” In other words, just because New Mexico’s state laws exempt medical marijuana users from liability under state criminal law, this does not mean that New Mexico employers must accommodate medical marijuana use while its use is still prohibited under federal law.

While it remains possible that New Mexico state courts could decide this issue another way, Garcia v. Tractor Supply Company provides employers with some clarity while awaiting guidance from state courts on this issue.