Human Resources News & Insights

Game-changing ruling on marijuana has major implications for HR pros everywhere

Do you have to accommodate employees’ use of medical marijuana even if you have a drug policy that follows federal law and prohibits illegal substances including marijuana?


A recent landmark court ruling shows just how tricky it can be for HR pros when state and federal marijuana laws collide.

The case, Barbuto v. Advantage Sales & Marketing, LLC, centered around a newly hired employee who was brought on to promote products at local supermarkets, her debilitating health condition that garnered her a medical marijuana prescription and her employer’s unwavering stance on positive drug tests.


Here’s what happened:

When Cristina Barbuto accepted a position with Advantage Sales & Marketing, she was suffering from Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal condition that can cause weight loss.

Because of this condition, Barbuto has little or no appetite and struggles to maintain her weight. This prompted her doctor to prescribe her medical marijuana.

But because she failed the company’s drug test, she was fired after her first day on the job. When she explained the situation, the company told her it followed federal, not state, law. As HR pros know, federal law still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug — in the same category as heroin and cocaine — and believes marijuana has no medical value.

However, Barbuto’s state (Massachusetts) has a law that directly contradicts the federal interpretation. Under The Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Act — a law that was passed in 2012 — “qualifying patients” should not be punished for medical use of marijuana.

When Barbuto was fired, she sued the company, claiming the company discriminated against her because of her disability.

What the court said

The company tried to argue that Barbuto never made her disability status clear and, even if it was clearly stated, all of its employees were required to pass a drug test because the company followed the federal standards regarding drug usage.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court didn’t agree with this stance.

According to the court, if a doctor comes to the conclusion that medical marijuana is the most effective treatment for an employee’s debilitating condition, an exception to the company’s drug policy to permit pot usage would be a reasonable accommodation.

The court did offer an exception to this stance on accommodating medical marijuana usage, though. That exception: If an employee works in a field where safety is an issue or is mandated by federal law (U.S. Department of Transportation regs, etc.), then the accommodation rule wouldn’t apply.

A major reversal

While this was a state-specific case, it has implications for employers everywhere.

Although, it runs contrary to similar rulings in California, Oregon and Colorado, it could offer a glimpse of how courts are likely to rule moving forward.

Because 29 states and DC now have laws permitting the use of medical marijuana, HR pros need to consider this interpretation of conflicting federal and state regs on medical marijuana and possibly adjust their own drug policies accordingly.

As Squire Patton Boggs attorney Jill Kirlila warns:

“Employers should be cautious when making any adverse decisions related to an employee’s use of medical marijuana.”



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