As many are aware, the state of California took a landmark step in drug legislation when state voters passed an initiative that legalized recreational marijuana use. This change took effect at the start of 2018, which could have interesting implications for workplace accidents.

Here are a few facts to keep in mind about federal and California drug laws, which may have bearing on an injured worker’s legal claim after a workplace accident.

California Legalized Recreational Marijuana, But It Is Still a Schedule I Substance Federally

Yes, California took historic steps to legalize recreational marijuana, but this does not mean the workplace will change as a result. After all, California employers are expected to comply with and follow federal law, which supersedes state law. There is a wide range of laws employers must follow at the federal level, ranging from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Fair Labor Standards Act and much more.

Consider the fact that federal law still says that marijuana is an illegal drug, and as such California employers must follow this standard. For this reason, employers who have drug and alcohol-free workplace policies may continue enforcing them in California, as the policies comply with federal law.

Therefore, this effectively means that a California employer may do the following if it complies with existing company policies:

  • Not hire someone who tests positive for marijuana
  • Terminate an employee for using marijuana in the workplace or outside it
  • Drug test employees

Marijuana and Workplace Accidents

At the outset of this analysis, it must be said that, despite legalizing marijuana, California still has some prohibitions against marijuana that remain in place. Anyone using marijuana is forbidden from the following behaviors, for example:

  • Operating machinery
  • Driving
  • Engaging in other similarly dangerous activity

As such, even if a California employer has no policy in place that forbids drugs, operating machinery under the influence of marijuana at work will prevent an employee from receiving workers’ comp benefits if their own impairment causes the injury. A more difficult legal dilemma would exist if the machinery was defective and an injured a worker who just so happened to be high at the time the machinery malfunctioned.

These are complex legal issues to be sure, and ones that require the help of an Orange County workers’ compensation lawyer who can help injured workers navigate this new legal terrain post-legalization.

Other questions worth contemplating in light of the new law are:

  • What happens if an employee uses marijuana outside of work, comes to work unimpaired and then is injured on the job?
  • What if marijuana is detected in a worker’s system but there is no proof that the worker was impaired at the time a workplace accident transpired?
  • How can a worker be found "impaired" if there is not a reliable standard for determining marijuana impairment?
  • Do issues like these justify a denial of benefits or termination?

It is likely that company policies will be updated to address some of the legal uncertainty surrounding these issues. In the interim, be sure to reach out to an Orange County workers’ comp lawyer at The Ledger Law Firm if your employer is using your marijuana use as the justification for denying your workers’ comp claim.

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