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Federal court backs employer that fired new hire over medical marijuana use

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A New Mexico employer had the right to fire an employee for using medical marijuana, even though New Mexico courts have deemed medical marijuana to be compensable under state workers compensation law, a federal court has ruled.

Rojerio Garcia was hired in August 2014 to work as a team leader with Brentwood, Tennessee-based Tractor Supply Co. in Santa Fe, according to court records. During his initial interview for the job, Mr. Garcia informed a hiring manager that he had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and that he participates in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program to treat symptoms of his condition.

Mr. Garcia was required to undergo a post-offer, pre-employment drug test, which showed that he tested positive for cannabis metabolites, records show. Tractor Supply's hiring manager discharged Mr. Garcia on the basis of that positive drug test.

Mr. Garcia filed a complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Division, accusing Tractor Supply of unlawful discrimination, according to court filings. However, the New Mexico Labor Relations Division/Human Rights Bureau determined that there was no probable cause in Mr. Garcia's claim.

He then filed a lawsuit in July 2015 in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, court against Tractor Supply, records show. That lawsuit alleged that Tractor Supply terminated him based on his medical condition and his doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana. The case was moved to the Albuquerque U.S. District Court in New Mexico based on a request by Tractor Supply.

District Judge William P. Johnson ruled on Jan. 7 that Tractor Supply had a right to terminate Mr. Garcia's employment.

In court filings, Mr. Garcia cited decisions by the New Mexico Court of Appeals that found New Mexico workers comp law authorizes reimbursement for medical marijuana. Therefore, Mr. Garcia argued that New Mexico courts would also find medical marijuana to be a reasonable accommodation under the New Mexico Human Rights Act.

However, Judge Johnson found that there was a “fundamental difference between requiring compensation for medical treatment and affirmatively requiring an employer to accommodate an employer's use of a drug that is still illegal under federal law.”

“Were the Court to agree with Mr. Garcia, and require Tractor Supply to modify their drug-free policy to accommodate Mr. Garcia's marijuana use, Tractor Supply, with stores in 49 states, would likely need to modify their drug-free policy for each state that has legalized marijuana, decriminalized marijuana, or created a medical marijuana program,” the ruling reads. “Depending on the language of each state's statute, Tractor Supply would potentially have to tailor their drug-free policy differently for each state permitting marijuana use in some form.”

Tractor Supply argued in filings that accommodating Mr. Garcia's medical marijuana use also would conflict with the federal Controlled Substances Act, under which marijuana is deemed an illegal substance. Judge Johnson agreed with Tractor Supply on this point.

“To affirmatively require Tractor Supply to accommodate Mr. Garcia's illegal drug use would mandate Tractor Supply to permit the very conduct the (Controlled Substances Act) proscribes,” the ruling reads.