Under a court ruling late last month, it was determined that employers cannot terminate workers based on their usage of medicinal marijuana—a fact that could potentially disrupt talks for the state’s fragile legalization efforts.
The state appeals court ruled on March 27 that although the Christie-era 2010 Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act offers no workplace protections for program enrollees, those patients are still protected by the state’s Law Against Discrimination.
Lawmakers cancelled a March 25 vote to legalize adult-use marijuana because the state Senate lacked the 21 votes needed to approve the measure, even though the Assembly had the 41 votes needed. Included in that package of bills was Senate Bill 10, which would have expanded the state’s existing medical marijuana program and legislatively addressed two major sticking points.
The measure would have lifted the cap on how much medical marijuana a patient could obtain each month and create employee protections for patients.
The court ruling could stand to address one of those concerns and pave the way for Murphy’s expansion.
Gov. Phil Murphy said soon after the cancelled March 25 vote that he would have no choice but to go ahead with the expansion of the medical marijuana program, only to backtrack days later. As it stands, Murphy has vowed to go ahead with the expansion if lawmakers do not send him a bill to legalize recreational marijuana in May, during the one-month window to approve any landmark legislation in-between budget talks.
The court ruling stemmed from a suit Justin Wild filed in February against his former employer, the Ridgewood-based Feeney Funeral Home, who fired him in 2016 after testing positive for marijuana in his system. The funeral home did not find out he was a patient until after a car accident, when Wild revealed his participation in the program.
The usage of marijuana has been a major sticking point in legalization talks, especially for businesses worried their employees would show up to work under the influence. Senate Bill 10 would not let employers dismiss workers simply for testing positive for marijuana or their participation on the medical program.
“Nothing in this section shall be deemed to restrict an employer’s ability to prohibit, or take adverse employment action for, the possession or use of intoxicating substances during work hours,” the bill adds.
The governor, according to Alyana Alfaro, deputy press secretary for the governor’s office, “is committed to working with the Legislature to further reform our medical marijuana program and to legalize adult-use recreational marijuana.”
“The Murphy Administration has significantly expanded access to medical marijuana, doubling patient and physician participation since Murphy took office,” Alfaro said in a statement to NJBIZ. “The expanded program is ensuring that patients with conditions including anxiety, PTSD, Tourette Syndrome, and chronic pain get access to appropriate treatment, legally and without stigma.”
“[Gov.] Murphy believes that no one should be penalized for receiving necessary medical care, and is pleased to see the law moving in that direction,” Alfaro added.
A spokesperson for Sweeney declined to comment.
Opponents such as Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, worry that the expansion could become “de facto legalization,” and that lawmakers on the fence about supporting the legal cannabis measure might end up declining to make the risky political move.
“Productive discussions with the Governor, Senate President and bill sponsors continue as we work to pass responsible legislation,” Liza Acevedo, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, told NJBIZ.
Murphy’s plans for expansion call for the Department of Health to ramp up the state’s medicinal marijuana program by adding dozens of new dispensaries, so that it could accommodate 150,000 additional patients by 2022, on top of the 42,000 program enrollees.