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Last Word: Another Workplace Battle in the War for Medical Marijuana

Here’s my latest prediction: The workplace is going to be the new battlefield in the war over the legalization of marijuana.

I say this because we’re starting to see more and more stories about how employees in states where medical marijuana is legal get fired for using cannabis to treat a medical condition despite what their doctor says, and, regardless of anything they have done to manage the situation to ease the concerns of their employer.

The most recent example comes courtesy of the Boston Globe:

Cristina Barbuto was thrilled when she landed her new marketing job last year.

Her delight quickly evaporated when she was fired after her first day because a drug test revealed marijuana use. She lost her job even though she’d disclosed during her interview that she takes the drug, with a doctor’s legal permission, to ease the symptoms of a digestive disorder.

Now, the 34-year-old Brewster woman is fighting for her right to use medical marijuana at home and not be fired for it. Her lawyers on Friday filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination over her termination — a case that is believed to be the first of its kind in the state involving marijuana and employment, an agency spokesman said.”

Barbuto suffers from Crohn’s disease, and her doctor has prescribed medical marijuana to help her deal with some of the effects, and it seems to be working. By all accounts, she is a model employee AND was honest and upfront during her job interview about her condition and how she was treating it.

But, I wonder: what kind of an employer hears that, decides to hire a person like Cristina Barbuto in spite of it, but then fires her on her first day of work for what they clearly knew before extending the job offer.

As someone who has hired many, many people over the years, I have to say, I don’t get it.

Barbuto told the Globe that she was told, before being hired, that her medical marijuana use would not be an issue. So, she was hired. But here’s what happened after that, according to the newspaper account:

The first day (on the job) went well and Barbuto was excited about the future as she described her day to her boyfriend that night.

Then the phone rang.

It was Joanne Meredith Villaruz, the company’s human resources representative, calling to say Barbuto was being fired for testing positive for marijuana, according to the complaint. When Barbuto questioned the termination, noting the state’s medical marijuana law and her doctor’s certificate, Villaruz told her, “We follow federal law, not state law,” the complaint said.

Villaruz, who has since left the company, declined to comment in an email and referred questions to Advantage Sales and Marketing’s headquarters in California. Barbuto’s complaint names both Villaruz and Advantage.

Tania King, Advantage’s chief legal officer, did not return calls and an email.”

It’s hard to know what happened here, but whatever it was, it was shortsighted and dumb.

Advantage Sales and Marketing could have declined to hire Barbuto, but they extended her a job offer and let her start work fully knowing she had this condition and was treating it with marijuana under her doctor’s advice and supervision.

What kind of employer wastes so much time, energy, and money doing that?

Both the Boston Globe and a similar story about the case on the website Jezebel point to the split between state and federal laws over marijuana use as the culprit in all of this, and although I know that is probably the legal issue HR people and employers cling to, the issue in this case is a lot simpler.

My guess is that the hiring manager at Advantage Sales and Marketing didn’t have a problem with Cristina Barbuto’s medical marijuana use, and they went ahead and hired her — but, without running it up the flagpole and checking with others first.

When HR found out, they probably freaked out but didn’t know how to withdraw the offer without getting sued. So, they came up with the notion of drug testing Barbuto on her first day of work, and then firing her when she failed it, pointing to “company policy” and “federal law” as the reason.

The only trouble with that line of thinking is that Advantage Sales and Marketing ended up with a lawsuit anyway, and one that is actually worse than a wrongful termination claim. That’s because it now has pushed all of this out into the public eye, where such a lawsuit will be watched and debated by millions.

It also exposes Advantage Sales and Marketing as an organization that goes back on it’s word, and a place that ANY employee — not just those using medical marijuana — would probably want to avoid at all costs.

This is exactly the kind of publicity most companies try to avoid. It is also the kind of publicity that will make a lot of potential employees and customers — especially those who believe legal, medical marijuana should be nurtured and embraced — avoid Advantage Sales and Marketing, too.




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