The high court upheld a Sacramento telecommunications company's firing of a man who flunked a company-ordered drug test. Gary Ross held a medical marijuana card authorizing him to legally use marijuana to treat a back injury sustained while serving in the Air Force.
The company, Ragingwire Inc., successfully argued it rightfully fired Ross because all marijuana use is illegal under federal law, which does not recognize the medical marijuana laws in California and 11 other states.
"No state law could completely legalize marijuana for medical purposes because the drug remains illegal under federal law," Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the 5-2 majority.
Further, the state Supreme Court said the so-called Compassionate Use Act passed by California voters in 1996 had nothing to do with employment laws.
"Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and duties of employers and employees," Werdegar wrote. "Under California law, an employer may require preemployment drug tests and take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions."
The Court said that just because certain people for medical reasons are allowed to smoke marijuana without fear of going to jail doesn't mean those same people can turn around and say they have a disability that must be protected by law from employers, says CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen.
"I don't know how many people this would affect but I do know that had the ruling gone the other way it would have been a very, very big deal," Cohen said.
A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared that state medicinal marijuana laws don't protect users from prosecution. The Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal agencies have been actively shutting down major medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state over the last two years and charging their operators with serious felony distributions charges.
Raginwire said it fired Ross because it feared it could be the target of a federal raid, among other reasons.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and the Western Electrical Contractors Association Inc. had joined Ragingwire's case, arguing that companies could lose federal contracts and grants if they allowed employees to smoke pot.
The conservative nonprofit Pacific Legal Foundation said in a friend-of-the-court filing that employers could also be liable for damage done by high workers.
Ross had argued that medical marijuana users should receive the same workplace protection from discipline that employees with valid painkiller prescriptions do.
The nonprofit marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access, which represents Ross, estimates that 300,000 Americans use medical marijuana. The Oakland-based group said it has received hundreds of employee discrimination complaints in California since it began tracking the issue in 2005.
Justice Joyce Kennard dissented attacking the majority's ruling in the dissent as "conspicuously lacking in compassion." Kennard said the ruling "disrespects" the California medical marijuana law, and said employers should be barred from firing workers who use medical marijuana as long as they continue to perform their jobs adequately.
"The majority gives employers permission to fire any employee who uses marijuana on a doctor's recommendation, without requiring the employer to show that this medical use will in any way impair the employer's business interests," wrote Kennard. She was joined in the dissent by Justice Carlos Moreno.
The American Medical Association advocates keeping marijuana classified as a tightly controlled and dangerous drug that should not be legalized until more research is done.