Posted by Rebecca Saltzman
Yesterday, ASA’s chief counsel, Joe Elford, and I traveled to Sacramento to attend the Assembly Labor Committee hearing on AB 2279, ASA’s medical marijuana employment rights bill. AB2279, which protects the rights of hundreds of thousands of medical marijuana patients in California from employment discrimination, was introduced in February by Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and co-authored by Assemblymembers Patty Berg (D-Eureka), Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) and Lori Saldaña (D-San Diego). The bill reverses a January California Supreme Court decision in Ross v. RagingWire. Joe argued argued the case before the court.
We met Gary Ross, the plaintiff in Ross v. RagingWire, outside the hearing room in the Capitol. We were all excited about the hearing and felt good about our chances of passage. Last week, we passed a major hurdle by clearing the Judiciary Committee on a 6-3 vote. We’ve also secured the support of several prominent groups, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the National Lawyers Guild, and several HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations.
After sitting through discussions of several other labor bills, Chairman Sandre Swanson called for AB 2279 to be heard. Assemblymember Leno stepped down from his committee seat to speak about the merits of the bill. He spoke about the intent of the voters when passing Proposition 215 and the intent of the legislature when passing SB 420 – clearly, they intended for patients to have the right to work. Mr. Leno also clarified that AB 2279 does not cause employers to violate federal law and preserves the rights of employers to take action against employees that come to work impaired or consume medical marijuana at the workplace.
Gary Ross spoke next, focusing on his injury sustained while serving our country in the military and how medical marijuana has helped him deal with continuing pain and spasms. He also explained that marijuana has made him a better employee – since it relieves his pain, he is absent from work less frequently. Gary urged the committee to vote yes to spare other California patients the ordeal he has gone through.
Joe Elford followed, explaining the decision in the Ross case and why he thought the Supreme Court had made the wrong decision. He also explained that hundreds of thousands of patients rely on medical marijuana and should be allowed to work, an opinion shared by SEIU and AFSCME, which represent nearly a million workers in the state. Lastly, Lanette Davies, who is an executive member of the California Chamber of Commerce and is involved with the League of Women Voters, voiced her support for the bill as an employer who has employed medical marijuana patients.
Our opposition followed, spouting the same misinformation we heard from them at the Judiciary Committee hearing. A representative from the Chamber of Commerce explained that while the Chamber was not opposed to medical marijuana, the medical use of marijuana is still illegal under federal law. She also said that employers currently are allowed to employee medical marijuana patients, but they should have the choice of whether they want to do so based on whether this fits with their “workplace culture”.
Next, a representative from the National Federation of Independent Business voiced his concerns about the bill. He stated that testing for impairment on the job would be difficult and employees could still come to work impaired. He argued that if a medical marijuana patient was impaired and caused an accident, the employer would be held liable and would have to provide worker’s compensation. After he spoke, a representative from the California Manufacturing and Technology Association briefly voiced his opposition to the bill.
After the testimony was heard, Chairman Swanson asked committee members if they had any questions. Ira Ruskin asked a brief question about the amended language from Judiciary Committee, and John Laird (who sits on both the Judiciary and Labor committees) responded that it was his proposed amendment and the new language satisfied his previous concerns.
Swanson then took his turn to grill the opponents. He asked the rep from the National Federation of Independent Business whether he had any statistics or examples of accidents medical marijuana patients had caused. Our opponents could not even come up with one example. (As a side note, this interchange made me proud that Swanson represents me and my district in the Assembly.)
In his closing testimony, Leno hammered this point home even further. He told the opponents that they needed to be more proactive if they were to continue opposing the bill (his staff has been open to meeting with them and negotiating language), and that the opponents’ reasoning had become circular. Proposition 215 was passed in 1996, and the opponents still couldn’t come up with even one example of a workplace accident caused by a medical marijuana patient. Leno concluded by asking the committee members to consider the intent of Prop 215 and urged them to vote for the bill because the alternative is that medical marijuana patients could become unemployed and wards of the state.
The committee passed the bill, on a 6-2 party line vote. The next stop is the Assembly Floor. We have a ways to go before securing employment rights for California medical marijuana patients, but at least now, we’re one step closer.