On September 19, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued its much-anticipated opinion in Casias v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., affirming that Michigan’s Medicinal Marijuana Act (MMMA) does not protect employees from termination for using marijuana in violation of a drug-free workplace policy. That opinion resolves many open questions for employers contending with a less than artfully drafted statute.

Joseph Casias was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor at the age of 17, and, over the course of the next several years, used a variety of prescription drugs both to combat the tumor and to address the side effects caused by his treatment. When the MMMA was passed in 2008, Casias’ physician recommended that he try marijuana as another drug to treat his medical condition and, as a result, Casias was issued a registry card in June 2009 from the Michigan Department of Community Health.  Casias used marijuana for pain management, but was careful never to use it during times he was scheduled to be at his job at Wal-Mart.

In November 2009, Casias injured himself at work when he twisted his knee while pushing a cart.  Standard Wal-Mart policies require a drug test whenever an employee is injured on the job and, predictably, Casias failed his drug test as a result of his use of medical marijuana. Wal-Mart terminated Casias’ employment pursuant to the company’s zero-tolerance policy regarding drug use, despite Casias’ being a registered user of medical marijuana.  Casias sued, claiming that by terminating his employment for using medical marijuana Wal-Mart violated both the MMMA and Michigan public policy. The United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan dismissed Casias’ lawsuit, finding that the sole purpose of the MMMA is to provide a shield against criminal prosecution; the law does not, by its plain terms, create a private cause of action against employers who terminate users of marijuana for medical purposes. 

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed on appeal. The Court examined the language of the statute’s operative provisions, including the portion of the Act that reads:

A qualifying patient who has been issued and possesses a registry identification card shall not be subject to arrest, prosecution, or penalty in any manner, or denied any right or privilege, including but not limited to civil penalty or disciplinary action by a business or occupational or professional licensing board or bureau, for the medical use of marijuana in accordance with this act…

Mich. Comp. Laws 333.26424(a).  The question for the Court to resolve was whether the word “business” was an independent noun or whether “business” modified the following noun “licensing board or bureau.”  Taking the entirety of the sentence into account, the Court ruled that the latter interpretation was correct – the statute prevents only a “business…licensing board or bureau” from penalizing a user of medical marijuana. A standalone business’ operations are not implicated by the MMMA, so terminating Casias’ employment for use of medical marijuana was legal.

The matter is now resolved. The MMMA does not prevent Michigan employers from taking disciplinary action against employees who test positive for the use of marijuana, even if that use takes place in the context of medical treatment. While the ultimate resolution is not exactly surprising, the removal of lingering doubt in the minds of Michigan employers regarding their legal obligations under the MMMA is welcome.