By Tom Mooney
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A state Superior Court judge has ruled in favor of a woman who sued a Westerly fabrics company for not hiring her as a summer intern in 2014 because she was a registered medical marijuana user.
Christine Callaghan, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, sued Darlington Fabrics Corp. alleging the company violated the state’s medical marijuana law, which protects users from discrimination in employment.
In April, Meghan Siket, a lawyer for Darlington, argued before Judge Richard Licht that the state’s medical marijuana law forces companies to condone an act that the federal government considers illegal. And Siket said the law did not give those who felt discriminated against the clear right to sue, or in legal parlance, a “private right of action.”
But in a 32-page decision, Licht wrote that “there is only one sensible interpretation” of the medical marijuana law. It “must have an implied private right of action. Without one [the law] would be meaningless.”
Further, Licht wrote, the law does not force companies to condone an illegal act since “what an employee does on his or her off time does not impose any responsibility on the employer.”
Licht said in April that no matter how he ruled, his decision would likely be appealed to the state Supreme Court since it could have wide implications; more than 17,000 Rhode Islanders are registered so-called “cardholders.” Most are marijuana users but the classification also covers “caregivers” who grow for patients.
Soon after the decision’s release Tuesday, Siket said the owners of the fabrics company were disappointed and indeed would appeal to the state Supreme Court.
In his decision, which references the growing debate over marijuana use and wades “into the weeds” of pot puns, Licht said his challenge was limited to discerning the intent of the General Assembly when it enacted the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act in 2006.
Licht wrote that he began his analysis with the language of the law itself: “no school, employer, or landlord may refuse to reenroll, employ, or lease to, or otherwise penalize, a person solely for his or her status as a cardholder.”
Siket had also argued that Darlington Fabrics uses a uniform “neutral policy” of drug testing everyone. And thus by doing so, “you are treating all applicants the same.”
But Licht wrote that medical marijuana law is premised on the idea that the state “should make a distinction between the medical and nonmedical use of marijuana.”
If the court were to interpret the law as narrowly as the fabrics company wanted, Callaghan and other medical marijuana users “would be lumped together with nonmedical users of marijuana.”
The protections afforded the law “would be illusory,” Licht wrote, “Every medical marijuana patient could be screened out by a facially-neutral drug test.”
“This decision sends a strong message that people with disabilities simply cannot be denied equal employment opportunities because of the medication they take,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Carly Beauvais Iafrate, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Callaghan in 2014. “If employers were permitted to discriminate against those using medical marijuana, then the good work done by those to enact the law will be completely undone. The judge’s decision makes clear that this law is not an empty promise.”
In a statement issued by the ACLU, Callaghan said: “I would like to thank the ACLU and Carly for representing me in this matter, as without their aid I would have had no recourse. I am also thankful to Judge Licht for upholding my right to take medicine without fear of losing or being denied a job.”