Georgia has become the 24th state to enact a medical marijuana law.
On April 16, 2015, Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation immediately legalizing the use of a low-potency form of cannabis oil for medicinal uses. However, unlike many other medical marijuana laws enacted recently, the Georgia law contains no language protecting medical marijuana users from employment discrimination. Indeed, the law provides considerable protections for employers from employees reporting to work or remaining on duty after consuming the drug. It states: “Nothing in this article shall require an employer to permit or accommodate the use, consumption, possession, transfer, display, transportation, sale or growing of marijuana in any form, or to affect the ability of an employer to have a written zero tolerance policy prohibiting the on-duty, and off-duty, use of marijuana, or prohibiting any employee from having a detectable amount of marijuana in such employee’s system while at work.”
The new law, House Bill 1, known as “Haleigh’s Hope Act,” permits patients suffering from cancer, Crohn’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, mitochondrial disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, seizure disorders, and sickle cell disease to possess up to 20 ounces of “low THC oil.” The low-THC oil can contain no more than five percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive agent in marijuana. Smoking marijuana is not permitted under the law. (The Act is named after a child suffering from chronic seizure disorders who, having had hundreds of seizures a day, moved from Georgia to Colorado, where medical marijuana is legal.)
Although the law is effective immediately, the state Department of Public Health must promulgate rules and regulations for the establishment and operation of the patient registration process and dispensing of registry cards to individuals and caregivers. The law creates a Georgia Commission on Medical Cannabis to prepare comprehensive recommendations regarding the potential regulation of medical cannabis in the state, among other things.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The Controlled Substances Act lists marijuana on Schedule I, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” (A federal medical marijuana bill, the “Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act of 2015” (S. 683), recently has been introduced in the Senate by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rand Paul (R-KY). An identical bill also has been introduced in the House by Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Don Young (R-AK) (H.R. 1538). If enacted, CARERS would, among other things, remove the drug from Schedule I and include it in Schedule II, as a drug or other substance having a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S., or a currently accepted medical use with severe restrictions, but having a high potential for abuse, potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.)
Despite the apparently employer-friendly language in the new law, employers are not relieved from complying with other legal requirements, such as any obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee’s underlying medical condition. Employers should consult with employment counsel to determine whether and how their particular circumstances are affected by the new law.