Vague Medical Marijuana Rules Leave Workers And Employers In The Dark
This article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Ed Mahon, was originally published by Spotlight PA.
Vague legal safeguards for medical marijuana users in Pennsylvania are forcing patients to choose between their job and a drug they say has changed their life, and leaving skittish employers vulnerable to lawsuits, according to a three-month Spotlight PA investigation.
While state law protects workers from being fired or denied a job just for having a doctor’s permission to use marijuana, those protections become opaque when people actually take the drug — regardless of whether they do it in their personal time.
“It essentially makes no sense,” Pittsburgh attorney John McCreary Jr., who represents employers, told Spotlight PA.
Some jobs are specifically regulated by state and federal drug testing rules, but most fall into a gray area that leaves the interpretation of the rules up to employers and the courts. That leads to inconsistency and what employers see as a lose-lose scenario: Either risk a wrongful termination suit, or potentially allow an unsafe work environment.
Despite widespread demands for clarity from businesses, cannabis advocates, attorneys, and at least one judge, the legislature and governor have so far failed to explicitly outline the rights of scores of workers and employers.
A review of more than a dozen state and federal lawsuits by Spotlight PA highlights the law’s ambiguity, showing the ramifications faced by legal marijuana users. Among them:
“Taxpaying medical marijuana cardholders are finding really no safe harbor on the job, which should be guaranteed under existing Pennsylvania law,” Todd Eachus, a member of the pro-cannabis legalization group Perfectly Normal, told lawmakers last year.
For the more than 400,000 medical marijuana patients in the state, the stakes are high. Losing a job over a positive drug test can put unemployment benefits at risk. It’s expensive and time-consuming to fight these cases in court — and the outcome is uncertain.
The lack of clarity is frustrating for employers too. More than 30 employer groups, including the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, have urged the legislature to provide clear guidance on marijuana and workplace safety issues.
“Employers in general are not opposed to medical marijuana,” Alex Halper, director of government affairs for the chamber, told Spotlight PA. “They just want to know what the rules are when they’re hiring for safety-sensitive positions.”
The safety question is a complex one. Marijuana can impair a person’s judgment, coordination, and balance, according to a report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But multiple studies show that commonly used urine drug screens might indicate that someone used marijuana days or weeks ago. The tests don’t tell you whether an employee was impaired at work.
When Pennsylvania lawmakers successfully passed a medical marijuana bill in 2016, they set specific blood limits for users working in a few jobs: ones that require people to operate certain chemicals, high-voltage electricity, or any other public utility. But restrictions on other workers — such as those working at heights or in confined spaces — are more vague.
The law also allows employers to prevent workers “from performing any duty which could result in a public health or safety risk while under the influence of medical marijuana,” a provision that can be interpreted many ways.
And while the law states that employers can’t discriminate against an employee “solely on the basis of such employee’s status as an individual who is certified to use medical marijuana,” Spotlight PA has found that protection has significant limits.
Pennsylvania’s law doesn’t specifically address the rights of patients to use the drug when they aren’t at work, and unlike some other states, it doesn’t include protections for them if they fail a drug test but are not impaired.
“[The law] kind of gives with one hand and takes it away with the other hand,” said Judith Cassel, a Harrisburg attorney who specializes in cannabis issues. “So employers and employees are both left with a lot of ambiguity.”
Some places have found a way to reduce uncertainty. Pittsburgh’s firefighters union worked out a deal with city officials that protects medical marijuana cardholders who use the drug off duty. In Philadelphia, elected officials passed a ban on pre-employment marijuana screenings for many jobs.
And some states offer stronger protections. Laws in Arizona, Minnesota, and Delaware, for instance, say employers can’t discriminate against patients based solely on a positive drug test for marijuana metabolites or components.
But so far, Pennsylvania lawmakers haven’t done the same, and attempts to change protections have run into obstacles. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also has not issued an opinion that specifically clarifies protections for workers.
Businesses don’t want to have to guess which positions are appropriate for medical marijuana patients and which ones are off limits, said McCreary, the Pittsburgh attorney who has represented employers in these disputes.
“They took what was a bright line rule … and they completely muddied it up in a way that nobody can really make any sense out of,” McCreary said of lawmakers.
In lawsuits, medical marijuana patients said they were denied or fired from a variety of jobs: forklift operator, welder, medical assistant, construction worker, emergency medical technician, and customer service representative.
Workers described how medical marijuana helped them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other conditions. In some cases, employees alleged they were punished without even undergoing a drug test.
In February 2021, a Weis Markets distribution center in Northumberland County sent employee Blake Longenecker home for five days after his medical marijuana card fell out of his wallet at work, according to his lawsuit. His attorneys wrote that Longenecker selected products from the warehouse and helped load them onto trucks, a job that paid $22 an hour. He was demoted from that job to one that paid almost half, according to the lawsuit.
Longenecker asked if he could keep his old job if he took a drug test and the results came back negative, but a human resource manager denied the request, his attorneys claimed.
Attorneys for Weis Markets acknowledged that Longenecker was sent home after his medical marijuana card was found at the facility, but the company denied discriminating against him. They said he was told he could return to work “in a position that would not require him to operate power equipment.”
The Longenecker case ended earlier this year later after the two sides privately resolved the lawsuit and asked a judge to dismiss the case. That’s a fairly common outcome, as many cases Spotlight PA reviewed were withdrawn before a judge ruled on the merits of the case.
A spokesperson for Weis and an attorney who represented Longenecker declined to comment for this story.
Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, which can create additional complications for some industries. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for instance, says pilots, school bus drivers, truck drivers, train engineers, ship captains — all deemed “safety-sensitive” employees — fall under its drug testing requirements and can’t use the drug.
Those federal drug testing rules led to problems for Todd Douglas, a medical marijuana patient and Philadelphia Gas Works employee.
Gas pipeline operators determine which of their employees are required to complete federally mandated drug testing for pipeline workers. Philadelphia Gas Works included Douglas, but he said he primarily works on a computer. He’s a drafter who creates construction drawings for the pipes that connect gas to people’s homes and businesses. He doesn’t work on live gas, has never used marijuana at work, and has never shown up to work high, he told Spotlight PA.
After a random drug test in November indicated he had used marijuana, Douglas said the company reassigned him and forced him to attend outpatient addiction treatment therapy. But he didn’t want to stop using marijuana.
“It helps with pain. But it also helps me feel better about the fact that I have pain,” Douglas told Spotlight PA. “It’s helped with depression. It improves my mood.”
He pushed back, and a federal oversight agency under the Department of Transportation later ruled in his favor. People in Douglas’ role should not be required to participate in their federally-mandated drug testing, the agency said. The department’s safety rules are meant for people who work “on a pipeline,” not employees who do design work, the agency wrote.
Philadelphia Gas Works in June agreed to return him to “full duty,” remove all discipline in connection with his November drug test, and pay $375 to an addiction treatment provider for his outstanding bill, according to copies of the settlement obtained by Spotlight PA.
Douglas is happy to be back in his regular job doing work he enjoys. Still, he worries the company could find another reason to drug test him. The federal agency’s May interpretation noted that its rules don’t ban employers from creating their own process to drug test people in his position.
“I feel like I have a target on my back,” Douglas told Spotlight PA in June.
A spokesperson for Philadelphia Gas Works wouldn’t answer questions about Douglas’ situation — or broader questions about its drug testing policies.
“PGW’s first responsibility is always the safety of our employees, customers, and communities across the City of Philadelphia and ensuring safety throughout all our operations,” spokesperson Richard Barnes said in an email.
Attorneys in a Lancaster County case recently asked Pennsylvania Superior Court judges to provide guidance on what it takes to win a wrongful termination lawsuit under the state’s medical marijuana law — and specifically what protections employees have if they exclusively use marijuana “on an off-duty basis.”
That case centers on Joseph Clark Jr., who worked for JRK Enterprises as a flagger, directing traffic at construction sites. He started working for the company in 2013, and an email exchange included as an exhibit in the case shows how he lost his job.
In August 2020, Clark sent an email to the owner and president of the company, Shannon Snare, asking about the workplace policy for medical marijuana.
“I just don’t know what our policy is on it and what would happen if I was sent out for a urine,” Clark wrote, referring to a drug test and adding that he didn’t want “anyone to be caught off guard with this.”
Snare told him she was checking with her attorney and would get back to him.
“Unfortunately, we cannot allow you to flag for us,” Snare wrote the next day.
He’d have to quit using marijuana and pass a drug test if he wanted to continue flagging, she explained. Clark told her he used marijuana to treat a medical condition and planned to continue doing so. Snare replied that she appreciated his honesty, respected “the years and hard work” he gave the company, and believed him when he said he didn’t use the drug on the job.
“However, you will not be able to continue to work for us while using marijuana, even though it is prescription,” Snare wrote. “I am sorry but as of now, you no longer work for us.”
Clark later found a job at another business. But he told Spotlight PA in July that uncertainty over workplace policies on marijuana limited his options. Clark said he asked potential employers if using marijuana would affect his hiring and was told it would.
“My confidence is still shattered,” Clark said in an interview. “I felt that we were protected. And it seems like we’re not. …We shouldn’t be limited. We still have the right to earn a living.”
Clark filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, where the two sides have sparred over federal requirements and safety issues.
Clark’s counsel claimed he never used marijuana on the job, never worked impaired or under the influence, and never consumed marijuana within eight hours of the start of a shift.
Meanwhile, attorneys for JRK Enterprises argued that he would expose the company to legal risks if an accident occurred.
“Employers cannot both be held accountable for maintaining a safe workplace and be unable to discharge employees for marijuana use,” they wrote in court filings.
In late August, Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to weigh in on the case, and it is continuing in Lancaster County’s court system.
After employees lose their job, they can run into other problems.
Robert Moyer was a warehouse worker for Jack Lehr Electric in Lehigh County, earning $16.50 an hour, until February 2020, when he was fired because a drug test came back positive for marijuana use, according to unemployment board records. Moyer said he had a medical marijuana card at the time.
“I felt betrayed,” he told Spotlight PA.
When Moyer applied for unemployment benefits, the Department of Labor and Industry denied his application and so did an appeals officer. The unemployment board later ruled in his favor, saying that the “bare test results do not disclose how recently the claimant may have ingested marijuana before reporting to work or that his work performance somehow was impaired on the day of the test.”
But the fight still wasn’t over.
His former employer sued the unemployment board in Commonwealth Court, arguing that Moyer shouldn’t be eligible because he violated the company’s drug policy and his marijuana use created a safety risk. In court filings, attorneys for the unemployment board disputed both claims and argued “there is no credible evidence that Claimant’s use of medical marijuana created a safety hazard for anyone.”
In June 2021, Commonwealth Court ruled in Moyer’s favor, a victory in a battle he thinks he shouldn’t have had to fight in the first place. Pennsylvania law, he said, should offer more protections so medical marijuana patients aren’t fired.
“It should be more clear,” Moyer told Spotlight PA. “A lot of people don’t know. … They think they have a card and they are protected, like I did.”
Jack Lehr Electric declined to comment for this story, through an attorney. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Industry said the agency doesn’t have statistics for the number of people initially denied benefits in cases similar to Moyer’s.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Health oversees the state’s medical marijuana program, but an agency spokesperson said the law does not give it “broad oversight of enforcement of employee protections,” adding that changes to the law would require legislative action.
While Pennsylvania lawmakers haven’t changed protections for workers, some employers and local governments have adjusted their own policies.
The number of urine drug screens in Pennsylvania that included marijuana dropped from nearly 99% in 2017 to 88% in 2021, according to workforce data from Quest Diagnostics. This excludes testing of employees in positions with federal drug-testing requirements.
In 2018, Pittsburgh firefighters worked out an agreement with city officials that created specific protections for medical marijuana cardholders who use the drug off duty.
“When we sat down with city officials to talk about this … they said, ‘We don’t want firefighters coming to work high,’” Tim Leech, a firefighter and vice president of the local union, told Spotlight PA. “And we said, ‘Well, this is going to be easy because neither do we.”
Firefighters are still subject to random drug tests, but cardholders aren’t disciplined if they test positive for marijuana, according to the agreement. They can be punished if they show up to work impaired — similar to the process for other drugs, according to Leech and a city spokesperson.
Other firefighters have told Leech they’re drinking less alcohol, or they’ve switched from federally approved prescription drugs, such as opioids, to medical marijuana because they feel it’s safer and less addictive. He said several of the conditions that qualify people for medical marijuana — cancer, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe chronic pain — are conditions that “firefighters get as a result of things that happen on the job.”
“I have had firefighters tell me that it’s changed their life dramatically,” Leech said. “Being able to have this safe, effective treatment I think has actually made them better firefighters and made our job safer.”
In Harrisburg, negotiations over employment protections have been “lengthy and challenging,” state Sen. Michele Brooks (R., Mercer) said during a committee hearing earlier this year.
State Sen. Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery) introduced legislation in June 2021 that would specifically allow employers to place marijuana restrictions on people who work in several newly defined safety-sensitive positions, including anyone performing firefighting duties, dispensing pharmaceuticals, caring for a patient or child, or operating a motor vehicle. A urine drug test would be the primary tool for determining if those workers were under the influence of marijuana.
The Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition, Pittsburgh’s firefighter union, and a statewide trial lawyers association opposed the bill and wrote that creating “workplace standards must be done carefully to ensure that patients are not deterred from seeking treatment out of fear of reprisal.”
A wide range of employer groups — representing everything from construction businesses to child care centers to restaurants — urged lawmakers to pass the bill in an April memo, writing that “employers should not be inhibited from maintaining reasonable workplace safety policies to protect their people, customers and the public.”
Mensch said he later amended the bill to focus on impaired workers in safety-sensitive roles, a change that would make it “much more workable.”
Still, Democrats on the committee raised concerns about how employers would judge impairment. State Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) said the measure “could be especially burdensome to someone who’s using medical marijuana for all the right reasons.”
The bill passed out of committee on a party-line vote with all Republicans in favor. Still, the future of the legislation is unclear.
For now, attorneys like McCreary in Pittsburgh are keeping an eye on court cases, looking at how judges rule.
A Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision could offer clarity, but McCreary said “the best way to resolve the issue is for the legislature to tell us what it meant.”
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Ed Mahon is an investigative reporter with Spotlight PA, based in York, Pennsylvania.
JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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JOHN DANKOSKY: Local science stories of national significance. More than 400,000 people in Pennsylvania have medical marijuana cards. But Pennsylvania law doesn’t protect workers who use medical marijuana to treat a doctor-approved condition. So this is leading to firings, lawsuits, and court cases.
More than a dozen of these cases were investigated by my next guest. Ed Mahon is an investigative reporter for The independent investigative newsroom Spotlight PA. He’s based in York, Pennsylvania. Ed, welcome to Science Friday.
ED MAHON: Thanks so much for having me.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s first get a bit of a timeline here. When did Pennsylvania legalize medical marijuana?
ED MAHON: So after a lot of negotiation and advocacy, our Democratic governor and Republican legislature legalized medical marijuana in April 2016. It took until about early 2018 for medical marijuana dispensaries to actually begin opening for patients.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So yeah, it takes a while to ramp up medical marijuana in any state. What kind of conditions are eligible for medical marijuana treatment?
ED MAHON: There are 23 qualifying conditions in Pennsylvania. The list includes cancer, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder. Two common ones are anxiety disorders and chronic pain. Those are ones that I think lead in terms of the number of patients qualifying for those reasons.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well– and I know that this has come up in other states that have medical marijuana laws on the books– have there been questions from people about what conditions should actually qualify?
ED MAHON: Oh, yeah. There’s been a whole process. The actual law itself had a shorter list. And then over the years, there’s this Medical Marijuana Advisory Board that recommends adding certain conditions to the list. And then the Secretary of Health in Pennsylvania will then approve them. Anxiety disorders was one of the conditions that was added through that process.
And you know, I’ve spoken to a number of patients who have talked about how it’s helped them. Todd Douglas is one example. I have a clip of him that we can listen to.
TODD DOUGLAS: It helps with pain, but it also helps me feel better about the fact that I have pain. Like, this pain’s not going away.
ED MAHON: And so Todd’s story is somewhat common. He says cannabis relieves pain, which in turn helps with depression, improves his mood, helps him focus. He says it gives him energy after work, whether he does dishes or builds bike trails in the woods near his house. These are all ways he says it helps. And there’s more than 400,000 active patients in the state who are approved to use cannabis.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s talk about what you investigated in your story. What are some of the legal protections that people have who use medical marijuana?
ED MAHON: So Pennsylvania’s law states that employers can’t discriminate against an employee solely on the basis of such employee’s status as an individual who is certified to use medical marijuana. But we found that protection has significant limits. Pennsylvania’s law doesn’t specifically address the rights of patients to use the drug when they aren’t at work. And unlike some other states, it doesn’t include protections for them if they fail a drug test but are not impaired.
And so we found people who were denied or fired from a variety of jobs– forklift operator, welder, medical assistant, emergency medical technician, customer service representative. So it’s a wide range.
JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s kind of remarkable, though. It’s legal in the state to use medical marijuana if you are approved to have a card. How exactly do employers get away with firing people for doing something that’s legal?
ED MAHON: Yeah, in the cases I reviewed, employers have made three main arguments. One, they argue that using the drug isn’t actually protected at all under Pennsylvania law as a worker. It’s legal for you to use it, but then they argue that you’re not actually protected to have it in your system at all when you’re working.
Two, they argue that the job requires safety-sensitive work. And so they argue it’s too big of a risk for a medical marijuana patient to do that type of work. And three, they’ll say federal rules ban patients from doing certain jobs, and they argue that those federal rules trump state law. And we found there’s often dispute about how far those federal restrictions go, and there’s often dispute about all of these three issues that I mentioned.
JOHN DANKOSKY: But I think that this is a really important distinction. It would be important, I suppose, for employers to know that someone wasn’t actively high while on the job. But there’s not really a way to test for that. Marijuana’s maybe in your system, but there’s no way to tell, am I impaired while on the job.
ED MAHON: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the commonly used urine drug screens– these are used by the vast majority of employers to test, and they detect that someone might have used marijuana days or weeks ago or several weeks ago. And so they do not measure impairment. And so there’s not a good standard or agreed-upon way of measuring impairment based on body fluids, which is how we measure most types of impairment.
JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m John Dankosky. We’re talking with Ed Mahon. He’s an investigative reporter for the independent investigative newsroom Spotlight PA. So let’s talk through some of the lawsuits, more than a dozen of them that you investigated. What are some of the things you found?
ED MAHON: Some workers allege they were punished even without a drug test just because someone found out they were a medical marijuana patient. Attorneys for one worker claimed he was demoted after his medical marijuana card fell out of his wallet at work. I spoke with another worker in central Pennsylvania who said he asked his boss about what the medical marijuana rules are at the job, and then he disclosed that he was a patient, ended up getting fired.
And then I spoke to another worker near Allentown who felt betrayed after he was fired. He thought he had a card and that meant he had protections. And then after he was fired, his former employer even sued a state board in an attempt to ban him from collecting unemployment benefits. So a lot of workers losing their jobs, feeling betrayed, and then sometimes running into even other problems because of that.
JOHN DANKOSKY: This seems so unbelievably confusing and maybe even puts the entire idea of a legitimate medical marijuana marketplace at issue here in the state. Why isn’t the law more clear, Ed?
ED MAHON: You know, I’ve spoken to a number of lawmakers and advocates who are working to try to change these laws. But I think you run into issues of just the difficulty of striking a balance. And one of the Republican lawmakers who’s pushing for a change is State Senator Michele Brooks. She’s a Republican and chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
MICHELE BROOKS: I think what we’re trying to do is be proactive. Most certainly, none of us want to see an accident where someone is injured or killed in the workplace and then suddenly the lens changes to, why wasn’t something done?
ED MAHON: And so she made those comments at a hearing earlier this year. And at the time, she was speaking in support of some legislation that would really define safety-sensitive jobs. And it would put new restrictions on firefighters, pharmacists, day care workers, people who operate a motor vehicle at work. And that bill passed out of committee, but during the negotiations, as they were trying to strike a balance between cannabis advocates and the business community, the bill has been amended to the point where neither side is pretty happy with what the bill is now. And it’s unclear whether that legislation would pass.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, since there are all these lawsuits that you’ve been looking into, what’s happening in the courts? Is this being settled in any definitive way?
ED MAHON: A lot of these cases settle privately, which makes a lot of sense. It’s time consuming and expensive to fight these battles in court. If someone gets fired but gets another job weeks or months later, there are real questions about what kind of damages they are entitled to under Pennsylvania law. I spoke to one attorney who talked about settling some cases for under $10,000, which is a relatively small amount.
There have been a few court decisions that lean in favor of the employer and the right to terminate someone. But Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court has not issued an opinion that clarifies the rights across the board. And a lot of people are waiting for that type of decision to really give them guidance.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Anybody who watches election results during a presidential election knows that Pennsylvania is kind of a purple state, right? There’s a lot of political diversity. Are any of the results that we’re seeing in the courts reflecting a traditional liberal or conservative lean in one part of the state or another?
ED MAHON: That’s a really good question and something that I’ll be interested in watching. So far, I’d say no. There was a court opinion in a north central Pennsylvania county, which is pretty conservative, that was actually good for employees. But right now, we’re working with a small sample. And most of the cases, as I mentioned, are settling before a judge fully weighs in on these merits. So it’s something to watch for.
JOHN DANKOSKY: My guest Ed Mahon is an investigative reporter for the independent investigative newsroom Spotlight PA. He’s been working on this story. He’s based in York, Pennsylvania. Ed, thanks so much for joining us here on Science Friday. I really appreciate it.
ED MAHON: Thanks so much for having me.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have four cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.