Could the federal government protect the rights of federal employees to use marijuana in states where its legal?
Possibly. A bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress on July 28 proposing to protect federal employees’ personal and private use of marijuana in states where it is legal. Congressmen Charlie Crist (D-Fl) and Drew Ferguson (R-Ga) jointly introduced the “Fairness in Federal Drug Testing Under State Laws Act”, which would prohibit federal employers from denying employment or subjecting federal employees to adverse personnel action if they test positive for marijuana and live in a state where it is legal.
Today, because marijuana remains an illegal substance under the Controlled Substance Act, federal employees can be terminated or denied employment if they test positive for marijuana on a drug test (and many federal agencies require regular or periodic testing). The bill would not apply to individuals occupying or seeking positions requiring top-secret clearance (meaning, they could still be tested), and the bill would allow federal employers to terminate employees for being impaired at work.
The bill, while incredibly important for federal employees, could also significantly impact private employers in states with legal cannabis. A majority of states have some form of legal marijuana, either medical or recreational. However, many of those states still allow employers to terminate employees for off-work use of marijuana, even medical marijuana patients. Several states, including Oregon and California, have attempted to pass legislation protecting employees’ off-work marijuana use, but the bills have failed in committees or did not garner enough votes to pass. Thus, both Oregon and California currently have statutes and/or case law allowing employers to terminate employees for off-work use.
So why are the state proposals failing? One big reason is that they have not made exceptions for private employers who contract with the federal government. Private employers who contract with the federal government are required to have drug-free workplace policies in place—meaning they have to terminate employees for positive drug tests to maintain their federal contracts. If the Fairness in Federal Drug Testing law passes, it likely would extend to private employers contracting with the government. And if the federal law passes, states may have a clearer path to protecting off-work use.
It is also important to note that the state laws and cases permitting employers to terminate employees for off-work marijuana use rests on marijuana’s continued classification as a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substance Act. While the Fairness in Federal Drug Testing act would not change marijuana’s status as controlled substance, states would at least be able to rely on the federal government’s position that it will not fire employees for off-work use. It seems more likely that the states where marijuana is legal in some form would be successful in passing legislation protecting employees’ off-work use of marijuana.
It will certainly be interesting to see if the Fairness in Federal Drug Testing bill gains momentum in committee and in front of Congress. We will be sure to keep you posted for any movement on the bill after Congress returns from their August recess.