Medical Marijuana Use Not Protected by ADA: Appeals Court

By Judy Greenwald

May. 23, 2012

California cities are not violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when they crack down on marijuana dispensers, said a federal appellate court in a case brought by disabled California residents.

The lawsuit in Marla James vs. the City of Costa Mesa was brought by severely disabled plaintiffs who said conventional medications had not alleviated the pain caused by their impairments, according to the May 21 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The plaintiffs obtain medical marijuana, which is permitted under state law, through collectives in Costa Mesa, California, and Lake Forest, California, but these cities have taken steps to close marijuana dispensing facilities that operate within their boundaries, according to the ruling.

The plaintiffs charge the cities’ actions violate Title II of the ADA, which prohibits discrimination in providing public services.

“We recognize that the plaintiffs are gravely ill, and that their request for ADA relief implicates not only their right to live comfortably, but also their basic human dignity,” said the appellate panel’s 2-1 ruling, in affirming a lower court decision.

“We also acknowledge that Californians embraced marijuana as an effective treatment for individuals like the plaintiffs who face debilitating pain. Congress has made clear, however, that the ADA defines ‘illegal drug use’ by reference to federal, rather than state, law, and federal law does not authorize the plaintiffs’ medical marijuana use. We therefore necessarily conclude that the plaintiffs’ medical marijuana use is not protected by the ADA.”

The court disagreed with the plaintiffs that their marijuana use falls within the ADA’s exception for drug use that is supervised by a licensed health care professional. In “light of the text, the legislative history, including related congressional activity, and the relationship between the ADA and the (federal Controlled Substances Act), we agree with both the district courts that have considered the question, as well as the United States as amicus curiae, in concluding that doctor-supervised marijuana use is an illegal use of drugs not covered by the ADA’s supervised use exception,” said the ruling.

Commenting on the ruling, D. Gregory Valenza, a partner with law firm Shaw Valenza L.L.P. in San Francisco, who is not involved in the case, said had the court ruled otherwise “it would not be a big jump” to apply it to Title I of the ADA, which is the employment section.

“The case doesn’t change things for employers,” but “it does strike a blow against the expansion of medical marijuana rights” for employees as more states pass laws permitting medical marijuana’s use, said Mr. Valenza.

Seventeen states plus the District of Columbia have laws that permit medical marijuana use, according to the Washington-based NORML, an advocacy organization for the legalization of marijuana.

Court rulings involving medical marijuana have generally held that employers are under no obligation to accommodate medical marijuana users, despite the state laws that permit doctors to prescribe it.

Judy Greenwald writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email

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Judy Greenwald writes for Business Insurance, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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