Oregon Supreme Court Decides on Medical Marijuana Case

May, 2006


On Thursday, May 4, 2006, in a unanimous decision Oregon's Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals in the Washburn vs. Columbia Forest Products, Inc. case, holding that Washburn did not meet the definition of a "disabled person" under state law.  Because he did not satisfy the definition of a "disabled person," the employer had no duty to accommodate.

Washburn was a millwright for Columbia Forest Products, Inc. and suffered from leg spasms that limited his ability to sleep.  Upon his doctor's approval to participate in Oregon's medical marijuana program, Washburn began smoking marijuana at night to alleviate his leg spasms, allowing him to sleep.  However, his employer's drug policy prohibited employees from reporting for work with a controlled substance in their system.  Washburn was terminated from employment after testing positive for marijuana.  Washburn sued Columbia Forest Products, Inc., alleging disability discrimination. He argued that his leg spasms and inability to sleep qualified him as disabled under the state's disability laws, which required his employer to make reasonable accommodations.

Under state law a "'disabled person' means an individual who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities..."  However, consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Oregon Supreme Court held that because Washburn's use of marijuana alleviated the effects of his impairments to the point where his major life activities were not substantially limited, he did not qualify as disabled.  Explaining why Washburn did not qualify as disabled and thus not entitled to reasonable accommodation by his employer, Chief Justice De Muniz wrote,

"In this case, plaintiff argues that he is disabled by virtue of his leg spasms, a condition that he claims substantially limits one of his major life activities, i.e., sleeping.  However, as the trial court noted below, it is undisputed that plaintiff is able to counteract those leg spasms and the resulting sleep problems by using prescription medication.  As a result, we conclude that because plaintiff can counteract his physical impairment through mitigating measures, his impairment does not, at this time, rise to the level of a substantial limitation on a major life activity.  Consequently, we conclude that plaintiff is not a 'disabled person'... Because plaintiff is not a 'disabled person' under [state disability laws] employer had no statutory duty to accommodate plaintiff's physical limitations in the manner sought by plaintiff."

While the court held that the employer was not required to accommodate in this case, the court did not address the broader issue of whether an employer would have to accommodate an employee's use of medical marijuana when other mitigating measures did not alleviate the level of impairment.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Kistler offered insight to how the court might rule on this broader issue, by writing that he believed "federal law preempts state employment discrimination law to the extent that it requires employers to accommodate medical marijuana use."

If you have questions about the impact of this decision on your drug policies or duty to accommodate an employee who produces a medical marijuana card, please contact Cascade.

 

View other Alerts & Reminders