Careless Conflicts: Medical Marijuana Implications for Employer Liability in the Wake of Vialpando v. Ben's Automotive Services

Author:George Fitting
Position:J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, 2017; B.A. English, Dickinson College, 2010
Pages:259-288
SUMMARY

There are 25 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana, but the federal government still lists the drug as a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. This conflict between state and federal law raises significant liability issues for employers whose employees obtain a medical marijuana prescription. Although state and federal courts have ... (see full summary)

 
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Careless Conflicts: Medical Marijuana
Implications for Employer Liability in the
Wake of Vialpando v. Ben’s Automotive
Services
George Fitting*
ABSTRACT: There are 25 states and the District of Columbia that have
legalized medical marijuana, but the federal government still lists the drug as
a Schedule I controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. This
conflict between state and federal law raises significant liability issues for
employers whose employees obtain a medical marijuana prescription.
Although state and federal courts have traditionally permitted employers to
terminate employees for medical marijuana use, and did not require employers
to pay for medical marijuana through workers’ compensation or private
health insurance plans, some recent cases suggest a trend in the opposite
direction. This Note explores employer medical marijuana liability concerns,
and argues for an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act that either:
(1) reclassifies marijuana as Schedule II or lower; or (2) exempts medical
marijuana states, combined with state-level legislation providing explicit
accommodation exemptions for employers, or a federal liability shield modeled
after the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, to give employers
protection while respecting the medical needs of their employees.
I. INTRODUCTION ............................................................................. 261
II. CANNABIS REGULATION IN THE UNITED STATES AND ITS
RELATIONSHIP TO EMPLOYER LIABILITY ....................................... 262
A. THE REGULATORY FRAMEWORK OF CANNABIS IN THE UNITED
STATES ................................................................................... 262
1. The Transition from Hemp Cultivation to Marijuana
Cultivation ..................................................................... 263
* J.D. Candidate, The University of Iowa College of Law, 2017; B.A. English, Dickinson
College, 2010. I would like to thank Evelyn Charles and my parents, Jane and Peter Fitting, for
their love and support throughout the writing process, and the Iowa Law Review Editorial Board
for its hard work bringing this Note to publication.
260 IOWA LAW REVIEW [Vol. 102:259
2. The Shift from Regulation to Criminalization ............ 263
3. Shifting Views and the Conflict Between State and
Federal Law .................................................................... 266
i. Continued Federal Prohibition .................................... 266
ii. Legalization at the State Level .................................... 267
B. THE REGULATORY FRAMEWORK GOVERNING EMPLOYERS. ......... 268
1. Financial Risk from Loss of Federal Contracts ........... 269
2. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act Workplace
Liability .......................................................................... 270
3. Federal Criminal Accomplice Liability ........................ 270
4. Civil Liability for Employees’ Actions .......................... 271
III. THE EXIGENT NEED FOR REFORM ................................................. 273
A. NEW DEVELOPMENTS MANDATING COMPLIANCE WITH STATE
MARIJUANA LAWS ................................................................... 273
1. Accommodations Required Under State Disability
Acts ................................................................................. 274
2. Reliance on Judicial Prioritization of Federal Law ..... 274
3. A Trend Away from Federal Prioritization .................. 275
B. THE HARMFUL EFFECTS OF PROTECTIONIST EMPLOYER
ACTION ............................................................................ 277
C. JUDICIAL RELIANCE ON EXECUTIVE DISPOSITION AND
DISCRETION ............................................................................ 279
1. Ambiguous and Unreliable Declarations of Policy ..... 280
2. The Fickle Nature of Administrative Posturing. ......... 282
IV. THE CASE FOR REMEDIES AT THE STATE AND FEDERAL LEVELS. ... 282
A. MARIJUANA SHOULD BE RECLASSIFIED UNDER THE CSA FROM
SCHEDULE I TO SCHEDULE II OR LOWER ................................... 283
1. Political Will for Reclassification. ................................. 283
2. Employers Would Retain Discretion to Terminate
Where Reasonable......................................................... 284
B. A CSA EXEMPTION FOR STATES WOULD ELIMINATE LEGAL
CONFLICT ............................................................................... 285
C. STATE LEGAL EXEMPTIONS WOULD SHIELD EMPLOYERS ........... 286
1. Arizona and Delaware’s Exemption from Reasonable
Accommodation ............................................................ 286
2. Minnesota’s Exemption for Impairment on the Job .. 287
3. Nevada’s Threat of Harm Exemption ......................... 288
4. Federal Passage of an Independent Liability Shield .. 131
V. CONCLUSION ................................................................................ 288

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