Michigan, like nearly half of the states in the nation, now embraces the medical use of marijuana in certain situations. Like most state medical marijuana laws, Michigan’s law (enacted by referendum) does not require accommodation of an employee who is under the influence of medical marijuana in the workplace. Yet a decision issued on October 23, 2014 recognizes that the state may not deny unemployment benefits to a card-carrying employee because the employee’s use of medical marijuana resulted in discharge.

A Fired Hospital Worker and Other Employees’ Unemployment Claims

In a group of consolidated cases, the Michigan Court of Appeals considered the claim for unemployment benefits made by a hospital employee who faced termination for testing positive after a drug test for marijuana. The hospital required a CT technician, a card-carrying employee, to undergo a drug screen because a patient complained that she inserted an IV line without using gloves, discussed the patient’s health care coverage in a crowded area and told the patient that she ate “special brownies.” In that and the other two consolidated cases, the employee sought unemployment benefits after being discharged for use of medical marijuana.

The Decision

Several provisions in Michigan’s unemployment law, similar to other state laws, permit the denial of unemployment benefits for intoxication at work, gross misconduct in the workplace and testing positive in violation of an employer’s drug testing policy.

Notwithstanding those rules, Michigan’s medical marijuana law provides, in relevant part:

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. . . . MCL 333.26424(a).

Because of the prohibition against a penalty being imposed on a qualifying patient, the court concluded that it would be unlawful for the state to penalize a card-carrying user by denying her unemployment benefits when her use of medical marijuana resulted in employment termination. Because the medical marijuana law essentially preempts other laws with regard to medical marijuana, the prohibition against penalties trumped the state unemployment law in that regard. Specifically, Michigan’s medical marijuana law says that “[a]ll other acts and parts of acts inconsistent with this act do not apply to the medical use of marijuana as provided for by this act.”

Employers Will Be Wary of Terminating Employees for Medical Marijuana Use

This decision teaches that employers will likely be responsible for unemployment benefits when they terminate employees for medical marijuana use. However, this decision does not prohibit such terminations. In fact, a federal appeals court previously held that Michigan’s medical marijuana law does not regulate private employers with regard to penalties they impose on employees.